Is organic for you?


I’ll begin this post about food with a confession; up until last year, buying organic food wasn’t a priority for me. That’s now changed and I’ve ended up curious about how I missed the point.

Perhaps I’m not the only one that has. I recently learned that organic food accounts for only 1.5% of total food and drink sales in the UK. Given that around 15% of UK taxpayers are in the higher or top rate of tax, it seems price can’t be the only factor in this seemingly tiny proportion. I know that not everyone can afford it, but those who can, perhaps should, it only adds a few pounds to my small frequent shops. If we make a (potentially oversimplified) ratio to translate it, this means that of the 17.5m hectares of land which we use to grow food, only 262,500 hectares of land are organically farmed. This is a considerably smaller area than our smallest national park, The Norfolk Broads.

I am shocked by this and have been scratching my head to ask, why? Firstly, I should state organic food’s importance.

I have been reading a lot recently about the loss of biodiversity in the UK and I’m genuinely sorrowful with how bad things have become in the last half century. We are becoming a country with less and less wildlife, with 60% of our wildlife in decline. It seems that the main cause of decline of species in this country is being caused by intensive modern agriculture. We hear concerns about intensely reared meat, but not nearly enough about the damage that intensely grown arable crops are doing too. It’s telling that the species that are suffering the worst declines are farmland birds - 12% of which now face extinction. Corn bunting numbers are down 90% since 1970, 2 million pairs of skylarks have disappeared in the same time period, and at current rates the turtle dove is due to become extinct in the next decade. This is all down to the simple stuff; the bread we buy, the cereal we eat in the morning, the veg we eat, and of course the meat we consume that’s been fed grain.

The reasons wildlife are declining are complex and often specific to each species, but largely it’s a combination of depletion of food and habitat. With intense production all kinds of ‘cides are used to kill insects, plants and fungi which may be a problem for the farmer, but make up habitat and food for wildlife. On top of this there’s artificial fertilisers which can run off crops into streams polluting water systems and, perhaps counterintuitively, many wildflowers don’t grow in soil that’s too fertile. They generally prefer ‘poor’ soil. Wildflowers are of course a superb and diverse source of seeds and attract insects offering more food for birds and mammals. Rather than farmland being a mosiac of variety, monoculture crops are barren for almost all life other than the specific crop. It’s all too intense, but the organic option offers a version of modern farming that leaves some room for wildlife. Not using those ‘cides and fertilisers and leaving crop margins, as shown below, makes a difference for other creatures that might wish to also inhabit that land. So to return to the question, why is only 1.5% of our food grown this way?

An organic field in Gloucestershire which has allowed a large wildflower margin alongside the crop.

An organic field in Gloucestershire which has allowed a large wildflower margin alongside the crop.

I don’t think it’s to do with availability, when you look for it most supermarkets stock an organic version of most products.

I wonder if firstly it’s to do with image. Does organic food perhaps represent a way of life or a person which doesn’t fit our own profile? Maybe it’s a bit hippyish, or belongs to those that spend their time concerned about ‘superfoods’ containing antioxidants, beta carotene or inner happiness. Certainly the packaging doesn’t help - as if it’s a luxury good or an anti-ageing elixir. Sainsbury’s organic range, with its dark green luxury wrapped-up-in-a-Barbour-jacket-packaging, is called SO organic; it might be that it’s simple abbreviation, but to me it sounds like it’s saying it’s SO organic, darling. Which, for no reason other that my own prejudices, previously put me off the product. (By the way, I own a Barbour jacket.) For me, there’s too much emphasis on the benefits for the self.

Perhaps I’m not the only one who for a long time has presumed that organic food was offered solely because it is better for you. I had presumed that not putting chemicals in or on food was primarily for the benefit of the humans that consume it. I must admit, this has never been much of a concern to me. I suppose I’d thought that there couldn’t possibly be chemicals in or on food that were genuinely harmful to me anyway… Could there?

I also wonder if, more than image, it’s because organic has always been there - its roots are in the early part of the last century. It’s not new or exciting and the fact that it’s always been around (in my lifespan at least) perhaps means it belongs to other people, as someone else’s movement. That all sounds shallow but maybe that’s a subconscious factor for organic food’s seemingly low uptake. If you have a movement that spans generations, perhaps there’s an imperative to restate its aims regularly, so new recruits can be found in new groups from the core principles, not by just joining the tribe because it fits your profile or class.

So, perhaps it’s simply because people don’t know the benefits organic production brings to biodiversity relative to its chemical cousin, caused by a lack of clarity about why it exists. Certainly that was the case for me.

I’d like to see renewed interest for organic food based on what it does for the natural world. From nothing more than observation, I believe the recent growth in interest in veganism is more to do with how it affects the world (and animals within it) than how it benefits the people who choose to eat plants over meat. Vegan food has also become delicious, which organic food is too. My father for many years was a non-organic farmer and I know good people who don’t farm organically but who do what they can to improve biodiversity. The reasons for not being organic might just be that they don’t like the extra paperwork. I don’t wish for non-organic farmers, or indeed any farmers, to become demonised in a discussion around organic, the last thing the UK needs now is more good and bad guys, but the best way to increase the number of organic farmers, is to increase the demand for their food with positive consuming.

Of course, there are many ideas in agriculture which go further than organic in their effort to work harmoniously with nature rather than against it - no till farming, regenerative agriculture or holistic planned grazing all can offer huge biodiversity benefits and quality produce, and can work within an organic structure, but it seems we haven’t even properly backed the basic idea of organic yet. As a believer in consumer demand leading supply, I’ve set my resolution for 2019 (and beyond) to only buy organic or equivalent well-grown food, and I hope you’ll join me and soon we’ll have organic as the standard option in shops. Given that it’s not just about what it does for my body, but about avoiding the extinction of species, it’s certainly more pressing than I’d previously thought.

Sebastian Cox