Organic farming has sold out and lost its way
17th March, 2010
The dreams of the early organic pioneers have been subsumed into a rush for global supply chains, strict regulations and fast-selling brands
Back in 1975, when I first started converting my farm to organic agriculture, there were no standards for production and no rule book. Just a few people committed to weaning their land off agrichemicals, improving soil fertility and supporting good animal health through regular crop rotations and through the sensible applications of farm yard manure. It was about taking a caring attitude to the overall welfare of our farms and trying to engender a wide bio-diversity of species within the farmland habitat.
We were not overly concerned about financial profit, but were interested in making an adequate return on our investments and in the quality, flavour and freshness of the foods we produced. We were perhaps more mindful than most of the words of Soil Association founder, Eve Balfour, that ‘organic’ food should be mostly unrefined and distributed and consumed locally, in its optimum condition.
I decided to develop my farm at Hardwick, in the Chiltern Hills of South Oxfordshire, on a mixed farming model, utilising a wide number of grasses and herbs in the lays and retaining all the ‘never ploughed’ permanent pasture that covers the chalk hills and sweeps along the Thames-side meadows. My view was that the dairy cows, sheep and beef cattle that I purchased to graze these meadows would produce subtle, fine flavoured milk and meat and would be kept healthy by eating their particular choice of medicinal herbs and hedgerow leaves, at will.
I was not disappointed. The cattle thrived and the crops grew free from disease. We were able to start a local unpasteurised milk and cream round that was much appreciated by local country people. When, in 1987, the Government tried to ban raw milk, I led a ‘Campaign for Real Milk’ and beat it off.
A growing enterprise
As we continued to build up the enterprises on the farm, so the milk round offered more choice of fresh and local organic produce: free range eggs, butter, pork, beef and table poultry. And in 1986 Hardwick’s smoked bacon won the first ever Soil Association Food Award.
The organic farming movement was giving birth and there was a sense of excitement in the air. We were proving that the wisdom of old was alive and well: one could contribute to the long-term sustainability of the land while producing robust, wholesome foods in sufficient volumes to satisfy local needs and produce a modest economic return. At that stage there was no premium, no mass production and no supermarket sales. We were an embryonic movement which shared much commonality with the fast disappearing traditional mixed family farms whose standard practice included rotational farming and minimal applications of agrichemicals.
The dream sours
What ‘organic food’ and its localised market was in those days bears little resemblance to ‘the industry’ that it is today: an industry that is heavily and centrally policed, has a compendium of regulations and is ‘big business’ on a global scale. In fact, much of the ‘organic’ produce shipped in from around the world and across the UK today carries no sense of connection with its geography or its farmers. It is as anonymous as the majority of conventional chemically produced foods, as dull in flavour and as lacking in nutritional vitality. What’s more it belongs in the category of ‘high food miles’ heavy ecological footprint produce, exceeding the 3,000 kilometre average shopping basket once identified as the UK norm. Due to the need to carry a lot of information, it is also responsible for an excessive level of packaging – most of which is non biodegradeable.
All this is a far cry from what might be considered a responsible and sustainable form of greening, and a far cry from the original aspiration that organic food should stand for ‘unrefined, fresh, local and seasonal’. One can even purchase ‘organic’ ultra heat treated homogenised milk in supermarkets today, a product that bears no resemblance to real milk at all.
However, there just might be some compensation for this consumer-oriented form of ‘green’ indulgence if the level of UK land converted to organic farming methods had shown substantial increases throughout this time. But this is not the case. In fact the official statistics reveal that there has been a negligible level of land converted to organic status over the past 20 years. It has remained pretty much static at around 3 to 4 percent of UK farmed land throughout this time.
So apart from the resilience of a small body of local producers who have helped to pioneer such marketing ventures as box schemes, farmers' markets, farm shops and dedicated farm-to-mill/processor chains, we have today an organic marketplace that is almost wholly dominated by super- and hypermarket chains. Their green credentials include the import of some eighty percent of organic foods, shipped and flown in from all over the world and from farms that are often as big and as undistinctive as their conventional monocultural lookalikes.
A boon for Tescos
Of course this is all very nice for the Tescos and Sainsburys of this world. It provides a nice bit of green icing for their very un-green cake. But what does it mean for human health? For the future of the 96 per cent of our farmland that remains dependent on heavy doses of toxic agrichemicals? To the once happy dream of a living, quality food-based rural economy and to more birds, bees and insects establishing their habitats amongst our unsprayed species rich fields? To farmers who care?
Organic food and farming was predicated on the belief that something called ‘holistic thinking’ would grow up along with the species-rich meadows and living foods. It was established on a belief that we humans are capable of comprehending, even participating in, the cyclic wheel of nature, seasons and unforced productivity. But only a little way down the line, it seems that we lost the plot.
We are now fast approaching a state in which a first and second class ‘two tier’ food culture will become the norm. A culture in which the financially secure and generally privileged will choose a premium priced, largely pesticide free ‘organically raised’ diet, while those less fortunate will have to contend with factory farmed, hydroponic and genetically modified foods, churned out by corporate enterprises having no other goals other than big profit and domination of the human food chain.
The organic food and farming movement can only help reverse this Orwellian scenario, and contribute to a better future, by revisiting its roots and ceasing to chase the chimera of big-time branded salvation.
Sir Julian Rose is an early pioneer of organic farming. He is President of the International Coalition to Protect the polish Countryside and author of the book ‘Changing Course for Life – Local Solutions to Global Problems’.
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