Here in the States, the recent foodie infighting over the relative benefits of organic and local agriculture has died down a bit, but now the UK is having its own row over organics. This one—much more political, and in many ways much uglier—is being eaten up by the media.
The argument was sparked by a government official’s comments: David Miliband, the country’s environment, food, and rural affairs secretary, said Sunday that buying organic food was a “lifestyle choice” and that crops grown using pesticides and chemical fertilizers should not be viewed as second-best. “I would not want to say that 96 percent of our farm produce is inferior because it’s not organic,” Miliband told The Sunday Times.
Sorta makes sense that he’d come down on the side of conventional farmers, given his position and his constituency. Also understandably, Britain’s organic farmers’ advocacy group, the Soil Association, was hurt by the comments—and the UK media have been very attentive to the group’s reaction. The organization’s director told The Guardian:
I actually think it is rather sad because it suggests that David Miliband is profoundly ignorant of the benefits that are motivating people to buy organic food. The industry has grown without the support of the government and we thought we finally had it on our side. I find it amazing the minister is being so dismissive.
Another Soil Association higher-up and Guardian contributor called Miliband’s move a “significant self-inflicted injury.” This article in The Scotsman even gave both sides of the debate a chance to express their opinions.
Perhaps because this discussion takes place among big players in food policy (rather than, say, writer Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey), it’s not taken for granted on both sides that food should be produced sustainably—and this means that the arguments are much more basic. Also a bit more embarrassing, on both sides: The Guardian quotes the founder of the online grocery store Organic Delivery Company, defending the health benefits of organics with an off-the-cuff personal anecdote:
It is not a lifestyle choice, there are health issues involved. I discovered organic food about 15 years ago when I had a chronic illness and went to an alternative health practitioner. I told him I was a vegetarian and he said ‘but your diet’s wrong, you are not eating organic food.’ He said I should eat food that is grown in harmony with the planet and the seasons. I did and within a month, my problem had gone.
OK, well, maybe that’s true—but how many organic skeptics does this guy really think are going to be swayed by the phrases “alternative health practitioner” and “grown in harmony with the planet and the seasons”? Oy.