Friday, February 16, 2007

Organic bollocks

***** interminable rant warning!!! rant ahead!!! *****


There was an interesting item on Channel 4 news last night about organic farmed cod.* It seems that some clever fellows have found a way to raise cod in an economically viable way, using twenty-four hour low-level lighting to fool the fish into thinking it is summer, stop them spawning, and ensure they grow to a decent size.

I think this is brilliant news. I like cod, but haven't eaten it for years because I can't square my need for fish with the ongoing rape of the seas. Our unelected leaders in the European Union have proven themselves worth every vote they receive by their year on year inability to form anything like a decent fisheries preservation strategy, and so stocks of cod in the north sea have been in free-fall for years. Industrial fish-factories roam the seas, vacuuming up sand eels and other small fry - the main source of food for many of the larger fish we like to eat, and of course seabirds like puffins - just to turn into fishmeal for the animal feed industry. And we still persist with quota systems that see many tonnes of undersized (and so illegal to land) fish, caught by vast drift nets, dumped dead back into the sea, when all the fisheries scientists in the world say that the best thing you can do is to designate 'no fishing' areas large enough to form protected spawning grounds.

If it were up to me, I'd designate hundred square mile no-go zones in the North Sea and Atlantic, and any fishing boat caught entering them would simply be confiscated and scrapped. Either that or the Royal Navy could use them for target practice. Everyone uses GPS these days, so you couldn't claim bad navigation as an excuse.

So, all in all, I think farmed cod is a good thing. And I know that there have been problems with farmed fish in the past - particularly with farmed salmon passing on their diseases to wild ones. But this is an infant technology that should be helped to flourish in as environmentally friendly a way as possible rather than painted evil and left to its own devices.

But an interesting problem arises when farmed fish producers try to adopt the label 'organic'. Actually the problem exists outwith the fish farming industry - all produce that wants to be organic has to run the gamut of an insane system of certification.

There are fourteen different organic certification bodies in the UK, all of which can issue a certificate verifying that produce conforms to minimum organic standards as laid down by the European Union (them again) and run in the UK by Defra (which once, a long time ago, was the Ministry for Agriculture Food and Fisheries, but is now the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which shows how government priorities have changed).

As long as a certification body sticks to the Defra approved minimum standards, then food sold under its banner is organic, but they can require their members to adopt more stringent criteria if they want. The Soil Association is undoubtedly the best known certification body in the UK, if not worldwide, but contrary to what most British people seem to think, it doesn't set the law on organic status. It does gold plate the existing standards - often to what I feel are absurd extremes. In particular its stance against the use of organophosphate dips for the treatment of scab in sheep is founded on the popular-press created image of these chemicals as universally bad, rather than any good science. The synthetic pyrethroids that farmers are obliged to use instead are a hundred times more environmentally damaging - particularly to marine invertebrates - and they persist for far longer. They also don't work particularly well, which is an animal welfare concern for the farmer.

Other organic certification bodies allow the use of OPs - with a suitably lengthened withdrawal period so that animals cannot be sold too soon after treatment. But the Soil Association certifies all the abattoirs, and won't allow them to take OP treated sheep - so the non-SA accredited farmers have nowhere to sell their animals. So much for a free market.**

Not that everything the SA does is bad. Their stringent requirements for organic egg production makes a dozen quite expensive, but they are the best eggs you'll buy without raising your own chickens. At their recent conference, they also discussed removing organic status from produce flown to the UK from overseas - thus addressing the issue of food miles that has been the organic movement's unacknowledged big sin for years now. Take a closer look at the organic produce on sale in your local supermarket (or specialist organic grocer if you're lucky enough to have one). Most of the goods are sourced from overseas, and many of them have to be air freighted from as far away as New Zealand. How is that better than buying the equivalent non-organic stuff from just down the road?

Which brings me perhaps ramblingly to the heart of this rant: what is the point of organic food? Originally it was about minimising the use of artificial inputs. Don't put a chemical fertiliser on that land, use manure. Don't pump those cows full of antibiotics to make them grow faster, let them mature naturally. It was a timely reaction to the spread of factory farming, but it was always going to be a niche thing. Organic farming is necessarily less productive than conventional; you can't expect to feed a world of more than six billion people using methods recognised by the Soil Association.

But here in the UK, the organic movement marketed itself well, and came to prominence at just the right time. As a nation, we are better off than we have ever been (and spending less as a proportion of our income on food than ever before). The backlash against soulless mass-production had begun before organic farming came to prominence, but the idea of paying a little bit more for something grown in 'the old-fashioned way' took hold towards the end of the last century, and mushroomed in the first half of this decade. Supermarkets, ever canny in their marketing, have exploited the greater profit potential of organic food to great effect. And yet, aside from the fact that organic vegetables shouldn't contain trace amounts of pesticides in them, there is no conclusive evidence that organic food is in any way better than conventional.

It is better for the land, (sometimes) better for the livestock and better for the local environment. I'll grant you that much. But it's also a rather indulgent luxury for the reasonably affluent, and not everything done in the name of organic production is good. I for one would always buy local produce first, organic local produce second. And when buying exotic foods produced overseas you're often better looking for the Fairtrade logo than any organic certification if you want to spend your money on salving your conscience.

And so to the organic cod. It is organic - certified by the Organic Food Federation, which is less stringent than the Soil Association. The soil association searched its heart and decided it wasn't happy with a situation where animals were exposed to artificial light for twenty-four hours a day for upwards of two years. Fair enough, if that's the way they want to go. Even I'll admit it does have the whiff of the factory about it, even if the lights are used as much for the welfare of the fish as for increasing production. Cod spawning are aggressive little buggers and bite big chunks out of each other. Confined in even the most generous of sea-borne tanks, this would lead to much fishy unhappiness. So keeping them under lights not only makes them grow bigger, but stops them from fighting. If you're that bothered about animal welfare that you can't bear to see the poor dears subjected to perpetual summer, then don't eat meat. And by meat I mean the flesh of any animal.***

But certification notwithstanding, what I can't understand is why the company producing these farmed cod feels the need to seek organic certification at all, apart from the fact that it has, misleadingly, become the de facto label for all things green, good, wholesome and generally beneficial to the planet. The whole point of farmed cod is that it is replacing wild cod on the dinner table (or bound in lovely light batter, nestling in a poke of oily, vinegar and brown sauce stained chips. Mmmm). That should be enough for people to fall over themselves to pay the premium price. I'm going to look for some in Tesco tomorrow.

I guess the sad truth of it is that people really don't give a fuck about where their food comes from most of the time. The organic movement has been pushing its message for decades now, and has
made barely a dent in the massive indifference of the eating public. But that small dent is handhold all other types of consciously 'green' food producers have to use, otherwise they stand no chance of succeeding. We're just too unreceptive and uncaring to learn the meanings of all the different labels. And so the original organic message gets buried under a mass of other considerations - quite often conflicting - whilst the things we should really be worrying about, such as global trade imbalances, food miles, rainforest destruction for palm oil production and the rape of the seas, get lost in the organic message.

I suppose I shouldn't moan too loudly. If someone seeks out organic food in preference to stuff they consider to be
somehow inferior, then at least they have taken that first step towards thinking about what they put in their mouths, and their children's mouths. I just wish that message didn't have to come from a marketing drive by Tesco and the somewhat zealous Soil Association, and that people would pay a lot more attention to what they eat, where it comes from, how it was produced and whether they should or shouldn't buy it.

Here endeth the rant.



* yes, I know that sounds unlikely, but strange things interest me these days
.
** another organic bogeyman is GM foods, though the measured application of GM technology could revolutionise organic production.**** Curiously, Golden Promise, the variety of barley most favoured by organic growers, was bred just after the war using a technique of radiation-induced forced mutation, which sounds a lot like GM to me. But what do I know?
***
There are those who say that you cannot produce meat organically; only vegetables. I disagree, but that's a different rant altogether.
**** curiously, the main reason it doesn't is because most organic devotees hate the idea of maximising productivity, even within an organic system. To them, we shouldn't even try to be as efficient as possible, as that way factory farming inevitably lies. Such people are, to my mind at least, incredibly selfish.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Organic, here, is just a label that makes people feel like they're being environmentally friendly.

I mean...

Well, you already ranted about it.

February 17, 2007 5:05 pm  
Blogger John R. said...

I'm inclined to agree. Personally I'd go much further on the fisheries thing - 100 square miles ain't jack shit to long term fish stocks and fish are more than capable of swimming 10 miles in any one direction - and cut it back so massively (with some kind of money/retraining/social fabric readjustment thing in place for a number of years afterwards to cushion the impact) that I'd be burned at the stake by mobs of angry fishermen. But that's just me.

Farmed cod, you say?...

February 18, 2007 12:54 pm  

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