Monty Don, the president of the UK’s Soil Association, said in an interview in The Guardian newspaper recently that the term organic has become off-putting for many people.
Organic food is seen to be “for wealthy, middle class people indulging in their penchant for peasant food”, he said, arguing that the term ‘sustainable’ could be better since it encompasses the same values but isn’t quite as scary.
A spokesperson for the Soil Association said that the views expressed were Monty Don’s own, and the organisation may mull them over, it was not going to change its policy at the drop of a spade.
But does he have a point?
If I take off my food journalist hat, don my consumer cap, and think of the term organic, I think of an ideal. Food I would like to eat all the time, but don’t always manage to.
But when I take a step back and think of the principals that, together, make up this aspirational concept, suddenly it looks a lot more rooted and achievable.
Grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers; produce from animals that are not pumped full of antibiotics; consideration of ecosystems; wise use of resources like water and energy; minimal waste (especially from packaging); grown as locally as possible…
These are all things against which I would put a tick in the box marked ‘my ideal meal’.
The problem is that the term organic makes me think I have to have them all in one go, in every single mouthful of food I take.
When I don’t – be it for reasons of time, availability, cost, or (yes, I’ll admit) sheer laziness – I feel bad.
Sustainability is one of the major considerations for industry this decade – and not just the food industry. Yet such serious attention to the effect of our activities on the climate and our environment is really quite recent.
It is easy to think we have to achieve it all in one go, when in fact leading a better life is always a work in progress.
The many faces of organic
Another problem for organic is that its meaning can shift depending on shopping context and product type.
For some, it means fresh produce from the farmer’s market. Where I live, it's potatoes that are still covered in clods of earth, handed over by a chap with a handlebar moustache.
Then there are the rows of gorgeous organic fruits in the supermarket, perfectly formed and winking seductively under the neon lights at anyone who steers their trolley near enough.
Finally, there’s a packet of soup or a ready-meal bearing the tag ‘organic’, contained in a neat package and an image that makes you feel like you are helping solve all the world’s ills, just by not opting for the regular ready-meal on the next aisle.
Yet there is a gulf between the mud-encrusted spuds and the neat cardboard package that contains potatoes all cleaned and ready-processed into soup.
It is easy to be cynical about the food industry latching on to a popular consumer movement, and calling in profits off the back of people’s desire to live better lives. But if the manufacturer is adhering to good practices, such as sourcing organics from as close to home as possible, minimising packaging, then it is contributing to more responsible living.
We don’t all have gardens, after all. And we are not all lucky enough to live in places inhabited by moustachioed potato-sellers.
If people want to eat organic, but lack the cooking skills, time, or confidence to rustle up a meal from rustic fare, then surely pre-packaged food is the next best thing? At least they are thinking about what they are eating and engaging, on some level, in the underlying principals – whatever we chose to call them.
The great cost question
“Ah, but organic food costs a lot.”
Yes, it’s true. When a farmer avoids chemicals, he is going to have a lower yield per acre. A few cents more for a bag of carrots helps him make ends meet. Fair enough.
The trouble is that elitism surrounding organic food means that some people don’t even get as far as looking at the price tag. They just seen the O-word and think (in a purely figurative sense, of course), that it is going to cost them the earth.
And that, I think, is a shame – especially as some of the supermarkets have been bringing down the price of organic produce, in a bid to hang on to consumers who are tightening their belts as the credit crunch kicks in. (Tesco says it can is reigning prices that were inflated last year as a result of UK flooding).
So I’m with Monty on this one. If there is more communication about what organic actually means, more people will be engaged by more of the principals.
We might not be able to eat organic every mealtime, but every little effort helps contribute to a more sustainable food chain.
Now, forget potatoes. I’m off for another look at that magnificent moustache…