I’ve been wary about the organic food movement since the evangelists for it got into their stride about 20 years ago, wary for the same reason that I’m wary about evangelism for religion, a particular political system or anything else – the enthusiasts are just so certain that they are right and any doubter is wrong.
There was, we were told, no room for doubt. Organically-produced food is good for you. Conventionally-produced food is bad for you. Give up artificial fertilisers, chemicals that kill crop bugs and diseases, cling to the one true organic faith.
There were always flaws in that claim. Organic methods mean lower yields. To be viable, organic foods need to sell for higher prices. There has never been conclusive evidence that organic food is healthier/better for us than conventionally-produced food. Over the years a number of shysters have passed conventional food off as organic with no one noticing the difference.
My own argument has always been that it is more to the point to encourage people to have a healthy balanced diet that includes much more fruit and vegetables than most of us eat at present than try to insist that food should be organic.
It was also always obvious that organic food sales depended on higher-income shoppers and middle class fads in a niche market. As incomes boomed in the early years of this century, so did organic food sales. It was a foregone conclusion that if and when times got tough for households, as they have in the past four years, organic sales would slump and enthusiasm fade.
So no surprise when I saw a headline at the weekend claiming that the organic boom was over in Scotland and that membership of the Scottish Organic Producers Association had almost halved. Certified organic land area in Scotland has more than halved from a high of over 424,000 hectares in 2002 to about 180,000 hectares now.
Paradoxical as it might seem I’ll refrain from saying “Told you so”, partly because I never like to kick people when they’re down, but mainly because I think there are extenuating circumstances for the slump. One is our old friend the subsidy system for supporting farmers or “encouraging” them to do something different. One subsidy a decade or so ago paid hill farmers to use organic methods.
As most hill farms were virtually organic anyway – using little fertiliser, few chemicals – and could rapidly make what few changes were needed to comply with organic organisation rules, many hill farmers saw this payment as money for old rope.
That was why the organic acreage increased rapidly to its 2002 peak. Then, as happens with subsidies occasionally, the money ran out, farmers reverted to what they were doing before, the organic acreage fell and membership of the organic producers association dwindled.
You can compare that process with any number of religious movements over the years – enthusiasm fired by charismatic preachers, incentives to join the happy band, the hint of a mass movement, then the slow decline as “believers” begin to wonder if it’s worth the effort.
But for all the arguments I’ve have had about organic food I’ve never doubted that there is a hard core of producers who genuinely believe in what they’re doing. Some were doing it before organic became fashionable or attracted subsidies, others have stuck with it through other leaner times. That’s why I don’t think organic production is done for. But until we all regain a bit more spending power, being an organic producer is not going to be easy.
One of many ironies is that for most shoppers, food and drink of any kind still accounts for only between 10 and 15 per cent of spending, even though there has been so much publicity about “soaring” prices. For our grandparents the figure was about 30 per cent. For our parents it was 20 to 25 per cent. Try suggesting now that we should be spending a third of our income on food, organic or any other kind.
Negotiations on changes to Europe’s common agricultural policy have begun in earnest, we’re told.
Eventually, subsidies for bigger farm businesses may be capped, the annual single farm payment could be replaced by regional basic area payments depending on land type and there will be even more emphasis on environment and conservation. At a time when we’re told food production can’t keep up with the increasing world population?
But don’t hold your breath; 2014 is supposed to be the agreed date for change. I have a hat ready to eat if that happens, not least because after all the negotiations have been completed at EU farm minister level the whole package – whatever shape that finally assumes – has to be approved, for the first time, by the EU parliament for 27 member states. To infinity and beyond.