Organic will lead the food revolution, says Melchett

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Organic food

The days of industrial farming and food production are coming to an
end as we turn to fresh, healthy and environmentally sustainable
products, the head of the UK Soil Association told food and drink
industry leaders last night.

"I am convinced that the era of industrial farming will be seen as a blip, a wrong turn,"​ said Lord Peter Melchett, speaking to hundreds of food industry officials at the City Food Lecture 2007 in London, organised by the Food Standards Agency.

His comments sparked a lively debate about the future of food supplies, and particularly whether the organic food movement was the right tool to lead the industry forward.

"We are at the beginning of major changes in our food culture,"​ said Lord Melchett, putting forward the case for mass conversion to organic production methods.

He fired a volley of statistics at the crowd, including that Tesco's organic food sales grew more than 30 per cent last year and that a third of farmers surveyed said they would consider switching to organic.

Organic methods, he said, could help solve some of the major challenges we face on climate change because they produced less carbon emissions. "Climate change is one of the biggest threats to our health as a species."

Other panellists invited to speak at the debate agreed the food industry must learn a new language based on environmental awareness, health and quality.

But they were not so convinced about Lord Melchett's belief in organic food.

"Consumers understand that responsible food is not just about organics,"​ said Sir Stuart Hampson, chairman of the John Lewis group, which owns the Waitrose retailer.

"What we've got to do is give information to consumers, and encourage them to recognise that good food costs more but that it's well worth the difference."

Educating consumers about food and the choices available formed a major part of the debate.

Prue Leith, who chairs the School Food Trust, said this did not necessarily mean an organic food revolution along Lord Melchett's lines. She advocated "freshly cooked, wholesome, good food. But I don't mind if it's organic or not,"​ to the applause of several sections of the audience.

More British consumers, and especially those from poorer areas, should be taught how to make and appreciate a well-cooked home meal, Leith said. "We are buying heaps more snacks and hand-held foods. Food culture is about enjoying food together, not eating it in the streets."

Other panellists thought the higher price of organic food sent a potentially dangerous message to consumers.

Tim Smith, chief executive of dairy group Arla Foods UK, said the extra cost of organic milk made him "concerned that we are implying that [standard] fresh milk and cheese is unhealthy"​.

As debate heated up, one panellist criticised organic movement principles.

"The organic movement is not taking low incomes seriously, and I speak as a supporter,"​ said Professor Tim Lang.

He added that "organic standards are too weak"​ on environmental issues, and that the Soil Association was not giving healthy eating enough attention by maintaining high levels of fat and salt in some certified products.

All panellists agreed that the food and drink industry needed to reflect on how it could manufacture and distribute in a sustainable way.

Lang, a respected and somewhat controversial food policy expert, said issues of food security "have only gone away for 60 years"​, and would return as resources such as oil and water became more scarce.

He added that carbon costs would have to be factored into food prices, referring to an announcement by Tesco head, Terry Leahy, last week that the supermarket would attempt to devise an accurate 'carbon footprint' for each if its products.

Feedback from the debate was mostly positive, although a popular topic of conversation on leaving the hall appeared to be english football, not organic food.

"West Ham won't go down,"​ said one to a colleague. But then, there is only so long one can discuss ways of feeding the future world.

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