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A Mini Recent History of Organic Food


Eating organic was once seen as a dreary, hippie-ish affectation. These days, it’s positively chic. At fashionable gatherings, valuable contacts are excitedly swapped: the charming vegetable supplier, the organic supermarket, the farmer who takes Visa. “The pork tastes piggy, the duck tastes like duck instead of some sort of anonymous flesh. Once you have had it, you don’t fancy anything else,” says Jean Norman, whose husband is Managing Director of Givenchy and who has been getting organic meat delivered from Somerset for months. Jade Jagger promotes the cause, Madonna shops at Fresh and Wild, and Julian Clary, Ruby Wax, Justine from Elastica, and Damien Hirst all get their organic veg delivered to the door.

Vegetable box schemes — whereby a household signs up to receive a weekly bag of whichever organic fruit and vegetables are available that day-are flourishing all over the country. The idea is to bring seasonal (remember seasonal?) produce to your door, cutting out the wholesaler and the time produce spends languishing in lorries and on supermarket shelves. Suddenly we are discovering the joy of scrubbing mud and creepy crawlies off our vegetables, and finding ourselves being inventive with kale and root vegetables. As Jane Grigson said, the best potatoes are always the dirtiest. And in a world of too much choice, not having to choose your veg varieties by getting a set box is a real luxury.

“I’m not obsessional about it for myself… I think the harm has already been done! But for my children it’s worth it,” says Claudia, a Londoner who gets her chicken, eggs and minced beef delivered from Swaddles Green, a farm in Somerset. She also always buys organic milk since the Lyndane scare which linked non-organic milk to breast cancer. Otherwise, she’ll buy organic when it’s convenient, unlike a friend who won’t give his kids anything unless it’s been available for 100 years — no low fat spreads or fish fingers for them!

Since the BSE and E. coli scandals, the demand for organic food has increased enormously. It’s the only way to be sure of what you are eating, as no other term is strictly defined. For example, “free range” hens may be more tightly packed than battery ones. Since 1993 organic producers have had to conform to European Community regulations and are inspected at least once a year by the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards. People who never used to give a thought to the Common Agriculture Policy, maximum residue levels, organophospahtes or nitrate vulnerable zones are now worried enough to ring the Pesticides Action Network — calls are doubling every year… And we’ve had a massive increase in visits, especially from people wanting to to find out where to buy organic locally.

It’s become much easier than it used to be, as supermarkets continue to respond to our demand for organic food.

“Many farmers would convert tomorrow if the Common Agriculture Policy was reformed and they had financial support from the government,” says Barbara Dinham of the Pesticides Action Network.

But you can’t go organic overnight. After years of using agrochemicals, it takes at least two years for land to become “clean” enough to farm without them. And if you’re not selling crops during that time, what are you going to live on? Helen Browning runs Eastbrook Farm, one of the biggest organic farms in Britain. She suggests that some of the £3.3 billion which BSE cost us could have been better employed supporting the organic cause. In the rest of Europe, particularly Austria, where 10 per cent of farmland is converted, things are made much easier for organic farmers. This is a major reason iwhy Britain has to import so much of its organic produce. In Germany, all baby food is now organic, and there’s a huge range of organic goods such as organic cotton clothing.

When Phillipa came out in hives after eating lots of unpeeled raw carrots, she put it down to an allergic reaction to pesticides. Barbara Dinham agrees that pesticides sometimes found in high levels in carrots can cause a skin reaction. It’s unusual in people who aren’t working directly with these chemicals (like sprayers or sheep-dippers), but is possible as part of a general sensitivity that’s built up over time. The Government ministry Defra has responded by telling us to cut 3mm off the tops of non-organic carrots, and always to peel carrots and apples before eating. Organicfood.co.uk suggests that you continue to enjoy biting into a juicy crunchy apple with its skin on — but simply eat organic!

Hammersmith-based mother Jane Myerson started buying organic in the late Eighties, after various foods scares. Now everything in her kitchen is organic except marmalade and fresh pasta, because only she and her husband eat those things. “It makes even more sense now because organic products are the only ones guaranteed not to contain genetically modified soya. And it’s so much easier to find these days-you used to have to go to one of only a few specialist shops, rely on a butcher’s honesty. One told me that the Real Meat Company was supplying him but when I checked, it wasn’t true. Now I get most groceries from Choice Organics in Battersea, and meat, eggs and soup from Swaddles Green. Their Moroccan Lamb pie is delicious… Annoyingly, it’s better than I could do!”

She thinks her palate has improved since she started eating organic, and now she’s hooked. So are her kids. When they were given Tesco baked beans (an unrecognisable mush costing only 12p a tin) at a friends house, they didn’t believe they were baked beans, because they’d grown up on Whole Earth beans.

The there’s the environmental angle. Graham Harvey is scriptwriter for The Archers and author of The Killing of the Countryside. Harvey took a degree in agriculture and used to work for Farmers Weekly. He now lives in Somerset and started buying organic when he was researching his book. He uses two box schemes, which he has to collect from different ends of Taunton.

You have to be committed. But if it’s supporting the ecosystem, it’s more likely to be healthy food. Industrial farmers continue to impoverish the landscape, pollute soils and watercourses and market contaminated food, all without penalty. They’re producing for the government, not the consumer. It started after the Second World War when subsidies were introduced, so that farmers got guaranteed prices for what they grew, regardless of world market prices.

Mixed farming turned into intensive and specialised farming because with the new subsidies there was no longer any need to grow varied crops as an insurance against bad harvests and market instability.

“It’s a huge manufacturing industry,” says Harvey. “People no longer know what real food is. But if you buy directly from the producers, you’re getting back in touch with the countryside.”

John Lanchester is author of the culinary novel The Debt to Pleasure. He acknowledges what Graham Harvey believes, but adds,

There’s a discrepancy between what people say they want and what they do. They say they want organic food, but then they go and buy the non-organic things from Tesco. Free-range eggs only cost a bit more, but 90 per cent of the egg market is battery. And in France they spend 25 per cent of their income on food, while we only spend 15 per cent.

At Pinhill Farm in Shropshire, Ginny Mayall’s father and grandfather resisted the government’s push for intensive farming because they were worried about the effects of chemicals on the cattle.

“There was no such word as organic back then. They got a lot of teasing… People said it was all muck and magic and earthworm. But we’re still here.” And doing very well, selling wheat, oats and potatoes from the farm shop.

All this organic talk puts some off. My son loves pot noodles: “They’re not supposed to be good for you, that’s the point,” he sighs at me. I know a scientist who loves annoying his wife by going out and buying the cheapest beef from Safeway. Joanna Blythman, author of The Food We Eat, sometimes shops at the non-organic, but very good, local greengrocer. “I’ll compromise with fruit and veg, but not with animals or eggs.”

Our advice… you guessed it. Treat yourself — eat organic food.

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