UK organic food lobby demands state subsidies

That is an emotive headline. It is one guaranteed to raise the hackles of both organic food supporters, who will see in it anti-organic hyperbole, and also the anti-organic lobby, who will express outrage at the temerity of the UK Soil Association in calling for state support, especially when the state is slashing and burning public spending programmes across the board.

Such journalistic licence is little when compared with the hyperbole of the Soil Association, which has today published a report castigating the British government for failing to support organic food and farming. Just why the state should engage in such activities is not clear, when a peer-reviewed study commissioned by the Food Standards Agency in 2009 concluded that there is no evidence of a significant nutritional benefit from organic food. That study was of course damned by the Soil Association, but a subsequent review found in favour of the scientists’ methodology and results.

This is a £2 billion industry we are talking about, albeit one that appears to be in decline. It is also a highly complex industry to analyse, as real world consumers do not fit into exclusive organic and ‘inorganic’ boxes, and their motives for buying particular food products may be many and various. All we can say with confidence is that many consumers, and in particular the better off ones, care about what they stick into their mouths, and are sensitive to environmental issues, even if their awareness of environmental realities is lacking.

The Soil Association is feeling the pinch, and reacts by lashing out at government. Perhaps they should instead be chiding consumers, who in large part remain unconvinced by the arguments put forward by the Soil Association for organic foods and farming methods. The organisation points at other European countries as providing “better access to good information about the relative merits of different farming systems and food”, and calls for government to take the lead.

When trust in politicians is at an all-time low, should independent organisations of civil society such as the Soil Association not take the lead? Perhaps the Soil Association wishes to become absorbed into the state, much like Denmark’s Fødevarestyrelsen regulates the organic food industry in that highly industrialised agricultural country.

Denmark has the largest per capita organic food market in Europe, and that is in large part the result of state control. But compare the situation in Denmark with the organic food scene in the UK, and what emerges are differences of approach, with Danish standards being somewhat looser than the onerous rules imposed by the Soil Association on British organic farmers who sign up to its voluntary certification scheme. For example, the Soil Association is unique in having imposed a ban on nanotechnology, though how they intend to enforce the ban I do not know.

I would so love to see a grown-up, intelligent and scientifically literate debate about food sourcing and quality. But going by its past and current form, I fear that the Soil Association will play little or no part in such a public discussion.