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By John Humphrys
When British people farmed simply and ate plainly there was no need for organic
produce. But fears over pollution, pesticides, synthetic fertilisers,mad cow
disease, growth-hormone injections, swine fever, salmonella, GM food and foot
and mouth changed all that. Gradually we lost our faith in food
That crisis is, of course, the foot and mouth epidemic. The question on which it has focused attention - and which should have been addressed a long time ago - goes to the heart of Britain's food policy since the Second World War. Has the relentless drive for more and more cheap food proved to be a mistake?
The most powerful voices in the food industry scoff at even a hint of doubt. They tell us it is naive to raise the question. They remind us that choice is more varied and shopping for food has never been more convenient. Above all, they say, food is cheaper than it has ever been. The only alternative to the way we have been farming, producing and distributing our food for half a century is to return to some primitive form of agriculture and food production that would lead to desperate shortages, sky-high prices and disease-ridden animals. We would be back in the Middle Ages. Some talk darkly of malnourished children, even the return of diseases such as rickets.
Most of that is hysterical, self-serving nonsense. Malnutrition is a function of poverty or ignorance or both, not of the availability of food. I have spoken to doctors who worry about some of their young patients because they are fed a diet of junk food. Their parents have never cooked them a meal of fresh meat and vegetables in their short lives. That has nothing to do with the price of food. On the contrary, processed food is invariably more expensive than fresh vegetables. It is, to use the jargon of the day, a 'lifestyle' choice and one that is encouraged by the industry. Quite simply, there is more profit in a bag of crisps than in a pound of potatoes.
Nor is a return to 'primitive' farming practices the only alternative to factory farming and highly intensive agriculture. That is a gross insult to all those farmers who care deeply for the welfare of their animals and do not regard them as mere units of production. It also ignores the advances made in less intensive farming technologies. A growing number of farmers are finding ways of achieving good yields without tearing open yet another drum of chemicals or bag of synthetic fertiliser.
But the big question the industry and most politicians have been so reluctant to address is whether 'cheap' food is really cheap. To do so is to raise doubts about their judgment or even their motives. What price, for instance, should society put on the destruction of so much of our rural heritage, the loss of our water meadows and ancient hedges, the disappearance of so many songbirds?
It may be impossible to calculate that sort of thing in hard cash, but much else can be quantified. There are the taxes we pay to finance farming subsidies. There is the cost of cleaning chemical pollution from our drinking water. There are the consequences for the National Health Service of factory farmers abusing antibiotics. There is the possible impact on our health of chemical residues in our food.
There are the long-term effects of soil erosion and declining soil fertility. There is the terrible impact and vast cost of a tragedy such as BSE. And now, as I write, we are in the midst of another epidemic, foot and mouth disease. It would not be fair to say it is the direct result of intensive agriculture. But modern practices of food production and supply have enabled it to spread at a terrifying speed across the entire country.
Is it naive to raise questions about a food policy that has created such a legacy? I think not. But this is not a counsel of despair. There are many farmers and food producers and even politicians who accept that mistakes have been made and are searching for better ways of doing things. I believe the British people will insist on it. We are no longer prepared to take our food for granted. The nation wants a serious debate and there is no way of stopping it.
When the Chinese leader, Chou En-lai (1898-1976), was asked for his assessment of the effect of the French Revolution he paused for a moment and then said: 'It's too early to tell.' He may have been a shade too cautious, but you can see his point; history takes a long time to settle down. We think a particular action will have a particular consequence and years later, for a hundred reasons we had not even considered at the time, we discover we were wrong. There was a revolution in agriculture after the war - the birth of factory farming and industrial agriculture - and we are still assessing its effects because they continue to this day. But there has also been a counter-revolution of sorts in the past 15 years in the food industry. It is going to take a very long time before we can be sure of its effects because it, too, is still in progress. It is the organic revolution.
In 1981 it was just about possible to buy organic food in a Safeway supermarket - assuming you knew there was such a thing and assuming you wanted it very badly indeed. Four years later if you looked hard enough in one or two Sainsbury's or Waitrose stores you might find a few bruised apples or limp carrots with bits of soil still clinging to them on sale at silly prices. You wondered why the supermarket bothered and you wondered who would dream of buying the stuff.
Most supermarket managers looked on with a mixture of amusement and contempt. They said the days of muck and mystery had disappeared a long time ago and shoppers wanted their fruit and vegetables to be pristine, uniform and cheap. They did not want their apples to have blemishes on their skin; they had to be clean and shiny. Some supermarket bosses said sniffily that the quality of organic food could not be guaranteed. But 10 years later all the supermarkets were taking a serious interest. Within another five years they were fighting each other for a share of a market that was growing faster than any other sector in the industry. So what had happened to change things so dramatically?
It's easy enough to say what did not happen. There was no encouragement from our political leaders. They either did not know what was beginning to happen or they did not care. There was no great marketing drive by the big retailers. Any marketing expert will tell you that it's not difficult to persuade us to buy things if the budget is big enough. Not until many years later did the retailers start using organic food in their advertisements to tempt fickle shoppers. In terms of marketing, this was the quiet revolution.
As even Chou En-lai would concede, revolutions can succeed only if they have the support of a significant section of the population. They do not receive that support unless the people are unhappy with the status quo. So it was with food. There were enough people becoming a little uneasy about the quality and safety of the food they were buying from the supermarkets to spot that something was starting to happen. The reasons for the unease were mixed. Some people were worried about the use of pesticides. Some were offended by the worst excesses of factory farming and the effects it was having on the animals who suffered under it. Some were nervous about the growing number of food scares. And when those people saw organic food being offered in the supermarkets they winced at the higher cost but took a few apples or carrots home with them.
But they were still relatively few. Organic food had yet to break out of its niche market. It was growing, but it was still only for the more eccentric customers. It was hardly a subject that dominated the board meetings at Tesco or Sainsbury's. And then, one March afternoon in 1996, the Secretary of State for Health, Stephen Dorrell, stood up in the House of Commons to make a statement which would shatter the nation's confidence in our food. This was to prove the turning point. The quiet revolution was about to explode.
Four months earlier Mr Dorrell had been asked on television whether there was any connection between BSE and a new variant of an old disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD. He had said no there was no conceivable risk from eating British beef. Almost five years later Mr Dorrell was to tell me on the Today programme that he regretted ever having given that interview because he'd got it wrong. The message he delivered on that spring afternoon was a very different one indeed.
He told a packed and worried House that the 'most likely explanation' for the cases of CJD was indeed a link to BSE. MPs had been expecting bad news, but this was devastating. The implication was immediately obvious to everyone who heard him. Not only was mad cow disease wreaking havoc in the nation's dairy herds; there was a human equivalent of the disease and it was even more terrible. Every time we had eaten British beef in the past 10 years or more we had been putting our health at risk. There was no cure for the disease and it was always fatal. CJD could lie dormant in our unsuspecting bodies for a very long time. It might take 10, 15, 20 years or even longer to make its malignant presence felt. No one could predict how many people were already infected. It might be a handful. It might be a million.
Even now, all these years later, it is hard to forget the impact of that statement. Many of us remembered with a shudder the steaks we had grilled or the Sunday joints we had enjoyed. Far worse, we looked at our children and thought of the mincemeat we had made into sauces for their spaghetti or the hamburgers we had treated them to on a Saturday afternoon shopping expedition. Could we really have been poisoning our own children, condemning them to die from some hideous disease that we had never even known existed? It was scarcely credible.
The initial reaction was anger. We cursed the farmers who had forced their cows to behave like cannibals, then we cursed the arrogance and greed of the feed manufacturers and the renderers who had turned nature on its head by producing the wretched feed and not even telling the farmers what was in it unless they asked. Then we cursed the politicians and their civil servants who had been either uncaring or incompetent or secretive or all three.
It was at that point that many people decided they could no longer trust
the food they were buying. Connections were made between cost and quality.
There was one reason and one reason only for feeding ruminants on the ground-up
brains and spines and bones of other animals. It was profit. The left-over
bits of slaughtered animals cost the manufacturers relatively little and
contained lots of protein. A cow fed on only her natural diet of grass
and cereals produced nothing like as much milk as one fed on the concentrated
food made from the left-overs of an abattoir. The manufacturers made more
money and the farmers sold more milk and the price of food kept falling.
But worse - infinitely worse than all that - we began to share the grief of parents whose children fell victim to the hideous disease. And we began to worry for our own. Pictures of bright young teenagers began appearing in the newspapers and the text always told the same tragic story. Our beloved daughter had been full of life, full of fun, full of hope for the future. Then strange things started to happen. She could no longer concentrate. She grew irritable and angry. She became a different person. She lost control of her movements and her bodily functions. She became blind. She could no longer hear or speak. And then - with awful and absolute inevitability - she died.
When I presented a special programme for Panorama on the BSE crisis Stephen Dorrell was desperate to assure me that the government had acted as soon as it 'had the evidence'. Who could quarrel with that? Well, the Livestock Standards Committee of the Soil Association had warned in 1983 that there were serious risks in feeding animal protein to ruminants and banned it for all organic farmers. They had no firm evidence, but every ounce of their intuition and common sense told them it was a stupid thing to do. They were ignored. The problem with waiting for the evidence is that by the time you get it, it may be too late.
The politicians, advised by their experts, also wanted to reassure us that every step is now being taken to ensure that we will run no more similar risks. When a few questions were raised about the safety of beef on the bone, even from animals deemed to be entirely free from risk, butchers were immediately banned from selling it and T-bone steaks disappeared from restaurant menus. But still doubts remain in the minds of many people. The most persistent is this: BSE and other, lesser, food scares such as salmonella in eggs were the result of an approach to farming and food production that placed quantity above quality at every step in the chain and yet that approach has never been seriously questioned.
If a chicken could be forced to grow faster to knock a few pence off the cost of producing it, we did it. And never mind that it lived in disgusting conditions that invited disease. If a cow could be forced to produce twice as much milk by feeding it ground-up meat and bonemeal, we did it. If a field of carrots could be forced to deliver a bigger yield by spraying the plants with pesticides and the weeds with herbicides, we did it. And never mind that the Department of Health had to warn the people who ate those carrots to peel them carefully and throw away the top inch because of pesticide residues.
As so often before, many ordinary people with no great knowledge and no 'expert' advice to rely on were asking questions for themselves and reaching conclusions for themselves. One of those conclusions was that many of them wanted their food produced differently. They wanted less factory farming. They wanted food produced by less intensive methods. The supermarkets got the message. The revolution was born.
We are endlessly told - usually by the supermarkets themselves - that we have the best food retailers in the world and we should be grateful for what they have done for us. Not everyone is persuaded. Some of us regret the disappearance of so many small butchers and bakers and greengrocers and chemists. Some of us mourn the destruction of so many high streets and town centres. When the supermarket chains tell us they are not to blame we do not believe them. We prefer the evidence of our own eyes and the application of our own common sense. But in at least one respect the supermarkets cannot be faulted.
They are, by and large, run by brilliant marketing people who can spot a selling opportunity at a thousand paces and exploit it in less time than it takes to fill a trolley. It took them a very short time to recognise that their customers were scared at the thought of genetically modified food and they dumped it from their shelves before the biotech companies and the politicians knew what had hit them. Nothing sounds louder in the ear of a supermarket executive than a customer's threat to take her business to a competitor. Now the sound of customers demanding organic food was becoming deafening. All those supermarkets which had so recently scorned the idea of the so-called beard-and-sandal brigade were suddenly fighting each other for every organic carrot and tomato they could lay their hands on.
Marks & Spencer had once loftily declared that it would not be bothering with organic food because there was not enough demand and the quality could not be guaranteed. When they finally realised what was happening they changed their minds in a hurry. Sainsbury's and Waitrose were stocking close to a thousand lines by the middle of 2000 and Tesco was catching up fast. Asda launched its own brand of organic food. By the middle of the Nineties sales of organic food were growing at a rate of more than 40 per cent year on year. In 1999 we bought about £550 million worth of the stuff.
At this point you might expect the men and women who run the organic movement in this country to be jumping up and down with delight and - for the large part - they are. But there are problems. One serious concern is how the supermarkets will behave in the next few years. So long as organic produce accounted for no more than a tiny niche market none of the big chains had been terribly interested. They sold the food at higher prices but paid the producers more for it, so their profits on the whole enterprise were relatively modest. They didn't worry too much about that. The main reason for stocking the stuff in the first place was to make sure that customers who wanted it did not go elsewhere. But now things are different. One in three of us buys organic food at some time or other. Tesco sold more than £150 million worth in 2000. Across the whole market it accounts for nearly five per cent of total spending. Organic food has become seriously big business and every supermarket chain wants more of it.
The obvious way to take a bigger share of the market is to cut prices and then, maybe, push them back up again later when no one's looking. Tesco, for instance, said they would sell many of their organic products at the same price as conventional food. On the face of it, that sounds like good news; organic food has always commanded a pretty hefty premium which many people cannot afford. But the reason it costs more is that it is more expensive to produce. If the biggest supermarkets run true to form they will do what they have done: sooner or later they will put the squeeze on their organic suppliers to sell to them at the lowest possible price. The organic farmers and growers might then decide that the only way they can survive is to cut corners and lower their standards.
All of this assumes that the extraordinary increase in the sales of organic food will continue. The projections suggest that it will. By 2002 it is estimated that it will have passed the billion-pound mark and, in the following five years, will have doubled again - at least.
Yet there is another little worm gnawing away at the core of what seems to be an exceedingly healthy, growing apple. There were two big reasons for the sudden leap in demand for organic food: fear and distrust. We feared the diseases that could result from factory farming and we distrusted - with good reason - the reassurances that we were endlessly given. Many people also fear the consequences of eating food that contains the residues of dangerous pesticides. Those fears do not apply to organic food. Organic crops are not sprayed with synthetic poisons, so there are virtually no residues. It remains the case that of the 170,000 cows infected with BSE only a tiny number came from organic herds and they were animals that had been brought into the herd from other farms. Not one cow born and reared in a fully organic herd has ever gone down with BSE.
Fear may be one reason for buying organic food. Moral objections to factory farming may be another. Concern for the environment may be another. Worries about the reckless use of antibiotics may be yet another. But there's something else too. Is organic food better for us? Surveys of public opinion and increasing sales in the supermarkets suggest that most people think it is. Hard scientific proof is less easy to come by.
Critics of organic farming are not persuaded by any of this. The thoughtful sceptics say there is not enough evidence. They have a point; much more research needs to be done.
But there is a powerful lobby opposed to organic farming who have no interest in evidence or research. That lobby includes vested interests: the agrochemical companies who sell the pesticides and the synthetic fertilisers; the biotech companies who want to sell their genetically modified seeds; the barley barons who have made small fortunes farming for subsidies; the politicians who are afraid to admit that they may have got it wrong over the years and are afraid to upset the big vested interests.
We have had one agricultural revolution in living memory. It began in the 1950s and its effects - for good and ill - are with us still. It gave us bigger harvests. It also gave us environmental destruction and pesticide residues and antibiotic resistance and the horrors of mad cow disease. The more we have learnt about the food on our plate, the way it is grown and processed, the less we have come to trust it. Now we are being invited to embark on another revolution - genetic modification - with consequences we can only wonder at.
With the benefit of two generations of experience it is easy to see why intensive agriculture went wrong. It was never more than a knee-jerk reaction to the fear of food shortages: produce it cheap and make sure there's lots of it. None of us paused to think about the long-term consequences of what we were doing. We must not make the same mistake again. We must think seriously about what we expect from food and the way it is produced. And our starting point should be that agriculture is, in effect, the nation's primary health service.
So this is about more than the merits of one group of farmers over another and apportioning blame and praise. We should be moving on from that. We should be less arrogant and accept that good agriculture should not simply be battling against nature. If we allowed nature to have its way entirely most of us would starve, but it is possible to farm in harmony with it and not always in conflict. We should also acknowledge that good food is about more than calories and vitamins.
You don't have to live in a yurt and wear rope sandals to accept all of that. It is possible both to accept the basic scientific principles of cause and effect and also to believe in the holistic view of the world as a living organism. What is impossible to believe in is the arrogant notion that we can do what we damned well like and to hell with the consequences. That's what we have been doing for the past half-century. It is time to stop.
© 2001 by John Humphrys.
An extract from the book The
Great Food Gamble by John Humphrys. It is a superb read. Highly