Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Mail and Organic Food

We don't expect the Daily Mail to pay the slightest attention to concepts like truth, research or intellent thought, or indeed to recognise that there is a world beyond its garden gate that is not exactly the way it thinks it should be, and to criticize some silly girl for writing nonsense there is like calling attention to the spelling mistakes in American novels, but Google News, for some reason, thought I might be interested in this, and I wrote about the same thing last week, so I thought a few more remarks were in order.

The thing to remember about organic food is that it is a luxury. A luxury many people who can afford it are willing to pay for, because they have been converted to the religion or because it does, indeed, often taste better. But a luxury nonetheless, which by definition, most people cannot afford (and, pace the Mail and its readers, the world does not stop at the end of your road, or at Dover, or at the Straits of Gibraltar).

It is a luxury because it is expensive, and it is expensive not because the supermarkets place a big markup on it (which they do, of course, since there is a large market of well-off zealots willing to pay almost any price to appease the green god), but because it is very expensive to produce.

This is not hard to understand: to produce food for a large number of people requires a lot of land, even in England where land is extremely fertile. Organic farming uses very poor quality fertilizers, dramatically reducing both the yield and the quality of the soil year by year. It doesn't use pesticides so half of what does grow is eaten by insects or birds. It doesn't use preservatives so the product has a much shorter shelf life after picking. In organic cattle farming the quality of the feed is lower for the above reasons, and each animal produces much less meat or milk because they are not treated hormonally, and so on.

Yes, the result can taste much better, but the yields are vastly lower. (And nutritionally, there is no particular reason why organically grown food should be better for you.) Quite simply, if everyone farmed organically we would starve. (Caveats apply as in previous article). And this is the point that the Mail and some, though not all, of its commenters fail to understand. Organic farming makes a highly inefficient use of a limited resource. It was only by finding ways to exploit this resource more efficiently that 60m people are able to live very comfortable, healthy and long lives in Britain. Inefficient farming can only ever be a luxury market for that reason, unless our leaders go mad or start reading the Mail.

If you like to think that your breakfast egg and bacon came from a hen that runs around contentedly eating and drinking at will, and from a pig that led a free and happy life, and you are willing to pay for it, go ahead, viva la libertad, but don't try to make the rest of us do it or the poor will not eat.


Vincent said...

In your last para you seem to be confusing organic and free range.

I shall never knowingly eat food whose production has involved cruelty to animals or humans. I don't accept that "the poor will not eat" as a result of my principles. (I'm in no position to make others do anything, so I do understand that you are not referring to individual preferences here.)

But I'm not sure what inspires you to speak so passionately against organic food. I don't bother with it myself, but I feel instinctively that the Earth rejects the insults made to it by human greed & the effects of global capitalism. Not wanting to pick a fight with you, just challenging your views a little.

CIngram said...

Vincent, I have nothing against organically produced or free range food (you're right, I didn't make the difference very clear, but the original article confused them, too) nor do I wish to stop people producing or consuming it, if they want to and can afford to. As I have said, it often tastes better, which is an excellent thing in itself.

My point is that it is expensive to produce, because it makes much less efficient use of land than non-organic produce, and there is a real danger of governments in wealthy countries imposing legislation and targets for organic production, or subsidising it (as they already are in Spain) for populist reasons, the result of which would be felt in the economy, and could have serious consequences for less wealthy countries which sell us food.

I am all for tastier tomatoes and happier farm animals, but these things come at a price, and we need to know that price before we decide, collectively, rather than individually, whether we should pay it.

Vincent said...

Isn't "populist" pretty much the same as "democratic", in the sense of representative democracy?

If a democratic government (Spanish or British) imposes rules against the rearing of chickens in small cages, will you object, for economic or other reasons?

Neither government will do it of course, because cheap chicken would be imported from another country and / or the price would go up.

When chef Jamie Oliver did TV programmes on the treatment of chickens, I found it harder to buy free range chicken for a few weeks, as he had influenced a lot of viewers. Now it is OK again. Some of the viewers went back to cheaper chicken I suppose and free-range production increased.

But there is no reason at all why all chicken and eggs should not be free-range. There is enough land, enough workers. Battery eggs and chickens are an unpleasant anomaly resulting from ruthless capitalism.

CIngram said...

I probably wasn't as clear as I thought I had been in the previous comment, so let's have another go.

A market has been created in Britain for organic food. This has been done in the usual way markets are created- by identifying and appealing to a particualar type of consumer, investing in publicity, creating an image, etc. This process appears to have been fairly successful, and quite a lot of people choose to spend their money on this type of produce because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that it is tastier, healthier, will in the long run benefit the planet or just becuase they want to. So far, so good. I'm not going to tell anyone how to spend their money (and if I were there would be far better places to start than here, but that's a quite different matter).

The effect of this is that these people have less money to spend on other things, more resources are dedicated to the production of this food, and if it is very successful their will be a shift in the economy as a result of the choices people make. Again, no objection at all, this is the way things happen.

What worries me is when governments get involved. Subsidising organic farming because it's popular causes an artificial reduction in the value of a limited resource. It is possible to imagine the British government, or the EU, imposing restrictions on imports that do not meet certain organic criteria for production. That's when the poor will starve. Not the poor in Britain (as I said in the previous post, Britain can absorb the costs of a certain amount of government interference in this market, as it has in other markets- although that doesn't make it any more desirable) but the poor in other countries, who can no longer export to us unless they satisfy impossible conditions. The EU particularly has a long history of this sort of thing.

In other words, I have nothing against organic produce in itself, nor against those who choose to produce and consume it. My fear is that governments may do great damage by pursuing policies designed to take advantage of popular sentiment, and a lack of public understanding of the background to the matter, as shown in the Mail article and comments, makes such a policy more likely.

Vincent said...

Well, I would agree that the EU does some pretty idiotic things, and the Mail is not worthy of respect. Nor do I care about organic food. So I feel we have most things in common here.

But I don't share your fear that the public won't understand. I believe that enough are aware that small changes in their purchasing patterns, as a result of our recession, can affect producers in parts of Africa for example, who have invested much in the production of vegetables and flowers for example, flown in to satisfy demands for luxurious and exotic things.

I go to Morrisons supermarket here and they have fair trade versions of many items - bananas, coffee, tea, sugar, even wine. The shelf space given is about 25% of that given to non-fair trade (cheaper) goods in the same categories and the information on the packaging tells the purchaser about the producers, makes the transaction more meaningful. In a similar manner, the free-range chickens have their proportion of the shelf space, along with an intermediate kind of chicken not classed as free-range but not battery either.

On the matter of animal cruelty I am with Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, who said on last week's Desert Island Discs that he would not want anyone to take your line, that in order that everyone must eat, compromises are justified. Millions in India and the Far East are vegetarian, not through poverty but for religious and cultural reasons; so if meat becomes too expensive it doesn't necessitate starvation as you may be suggesting.

Vincent said...

Reading your original post and subsequent discussion I apologise if I have muddied the waters but as you point out the confusion started in the Mail article. As we know many people read that paper and may also have got confused.

When you say "the poor in other countries" in relation to starvation, who do you have in mind? Does it include any farmers in Spain, or would it be third-world farmers, say in the Caribbean or Africa?

CIngram said...

Yes, I refer to farmers in the third world, rather than in other European countries. As I said in the previous post, Spain is a wealthy country that can afford to adapt its production methods and absorb the costs of change, within limits, whether that change comes about through consumer choice or legislation. Many producers in poorer areas of the world who sell to us would be unable to do so and would face hardship.

And no, to answer a question in your second comment (my second comment crossed with yours, by the way, and so was not an answer to it, but a clarification of my own first comment) I would not consider the banning or restriction of battery hens to be undemocratic, if it reflected the public's view on the matter; nor, necessarily, would I see it as a bad thing. When I speak of populism I mean politicians reacting to a vocal and conspicuous minority, rather than implementing a genuine public will.

The passion you detect in my post is not against organic food at all, but is directed at the ignorance evident in much of the discussion of the subject. A radical change in the way food is produced, especially if it involved reducing productivity, would have important consequences for the British consumer, and for the people we trade with. These consequences need to be understood when taking personal and political decisions in this regard.

You raise other questions, such as vegetarianism, fair-trade goods, supermarket labelling (congrats to Morrisons, by the way, if they are truly informing the customer properly) and the treatment of animals, all of which are relevant to the subject and interesting in themselves, but at its simplest, my point was that there is a disadvantage to organic food, namely that it is more expensive to produce, and that that fact was missing from the Mail article, and from many discussions of the subject, making organic produce appear unmixedly good.