A few years ago, at university, I was convinced of the benefits of organic food production over less natural methods. For me, there are four main reasons why we should produce and eat organic food.
First, it is better for the environment: agriculture causes more than one-fifth of the UK's carbon footprint, mostly from nitrogen fertilisers. Secondly, it encourages wildlife: plant, insect and bird life is up to 50 per cent more prevalent on organic farms. Thirdly, whilst organic food may or may not be better for you (some studies suggest it has higher levels of vitamins and minerals, whilst others don't), I have found that by and large it tastes better. Fourthly, animal welfare is much higher under organic standards.
I freely admit that I was not a hard-up student. Nonetheless, a student I was and hardly flush with cash. Yet I made the decision to buy organic whenever I could. Separating my food from my flatmates' was rarely difficult, emblazoned as it often was with the deep green of the Sainsbury's Organic labelling - that ethical badge of honour. The local organic butcher (Sheepdrove Farm meat, highly recommended) probably did not count many students amongst his regulars but I was one. I was an irregular and (usually) light drinker, so I reasoned that I could re-allocate my budget towards doing a "Good Thing". Blimey, I even bought organic wholewheat pasta.
Nowadays, I still do buy wholewheat pasta (less refined, you burn more calories digesting it and it keeps you full for longer) but you won't see me buying it organic. Nor porridge oats, or bananas, peppers, frozen peas, blueberries and carrots. My faith in organic production has waned. "Faith" is an apt term because many of those who profess their organic allegiance do so with a zeal bordering on the religious. That put me off a bit. I've been convinced by the argument that as long as crops are grown carefully, knowledgeably, sustainably and locally it doesn't matter whether they are organic. Moreover, I do have sympathy for those who say that "organic" on a label is little more than an excuse to overcharge for it.
Furthermore, I can no longer justify my opposition to using science to feed the world's hungry. If that means GM agriculture, then so be it. As long as the evidence is robust and it is properly tested, why not? Millions of people on planet Earth are starving every day and they need to be fed. Oliver Walston, writing in the Daily Telegraph, is correct in pronouncing that a better measure of sustainability would be feeding "more of the world using less of its land and resources." Modern scientific methods can achieve that. We have to achieve that. As the world's population continues to mushroom and our rape of the landscape continues to worsen, it is critical that we achieve that. There will still be a place for gentlemen farmers with their organic plots of land. The "farmers market" at Duke of York Square in Chelsea will be there every Saturday, thronging with well-coiffured ladies carrying ethical "bags for life". Yet low-yielding organic crops, tasty as they are, will not feed the starving masses in Africa.
Yet on my last point in the list above, animal welfare, I do draw the line. This is a compromise with modernity that must be made. I enabled myself to visit that organic butcher at university, and to frequent the organic counter at the supermarket, because I cut down on the amount of meat I ate. In fact, that is something that the West needs to do anyway, because arable farming is an enormous source of carbon emissions, and consumer of other crops for fodder. I pledge to buy the best possible meat that I could but eat less of it. One by-product of this was that I became a better cook. It takes some creativity to turn out appealing home-cooked vegetarian meals on a regular basis without reverting to the lazy vegetarian's staples of carbs and cheese.
The most important product of this lifestyle choice was a contribution towards better lives for the animals that I chose to eat. No form of farming has higher standard for animal welfare than organic. According to the Soil Association (of which I am a member):
Under organic rules, all aspects of animal welfare are tightly controlled, including rearing, shelter, feeding, transportation and slaughter. Ensuring good health is better than relying on drugs to treat disease, which is why we put so much emphasis on practices that encourage healthy farm animals. Organic farmers do this in many practical ways, such as keeping numbers down to reduce stress, providing appropriate nutritious feed and ensuring easy access to the outdoors. Organic animals cannot be given growth promoting hormones, regular doses of antibiotics or genetically modified (GM) feed.
If you need more convincing, I implore you to watch the Oscar-nominated documentary-film Food, Inc., which examines corporate farming in the United States. Less well-known, but equally important, is Pig Business, a film released last year by actress turned environmental campaigner Tracy Worcester. You can watch Pig Business on YouTube. From the bottom of my heart, I wouldn't wish viewing it on anyone because some of the footage it contains is hugely distressing - but watch it you must.
Animals around the world suffer each and every day because of our insatiable, gluttonous desire (mainly in the West) for ever more cheaper animal protein. I can comprehend the need for modern (even intensive) farming methods if we are to feed this world's rising population and eradicate famine and suffering amongst the world's poorest people. Yet I cannot compromise on animal welfare.
For that reason, I hardly ever bother buying organic fruit, vegetables or grains (but if it is an imported good then I try to obtain it Fairtrade). It certainly saves me some pennies. But wherever possible (and thankfully, it is increasingly easy to obtain organic meat of many cuts and varieties) I buy meat that is organic and free-range. I extend that practice to dairy products, especially milk, although sadly many types of cheese are not made organically. In doing so, I am assured that the animal has lived (or in the case of milk, is probably still living) a full and happy existence.
Yes, the objective of that existence is to end up on our dinner plates. That might sound cruel but that is also life and we're not going to convert the world to vegetarianism (nor should we). However, please, please, please consider this: eat less meat, and when you do, make it organic. Do that, and the scientists can create as many crop concoctions as they like.