Something to Chew On: Is the end of organics nigh?

Is the end of organic nigh?

It’s been on my list of topics for discussion for some time but recent events, including this Guardian article have pushed it to the front of the queue. As Julian Baggini says, with a declining 1.8% of the total national food and drink spend, it’s not changing the world the way we all hoped it would twenty years ago.

Back in the day when the choice was a binary, ‘organic’ or ‘conventional’, organics was a massive force for good – largely because it almost shamed the mainstream conventional agriculture and food processing sectors into cleaning up their act. Some produced organic alternatives (Heinz tomato ketchup for example) and a few went 100% organic, but even the naysayers were shamed into taking a long hard look at what they were doing and undertaking a bit of green washing. Say what you want about greenwashing but it’s better than not washing at all. What nobody expected was that thirty years later, organic spend would still be less than 2% of the total. 

The Tyranny of Choice

With the benefit of hindsight, it was always going to be thus. For the vast majority, it was too expensive and far simpler to trust regulators and mainstream production to get their houses in order. For the rest, it was too binary and as criteria not covered by organic regulations became apparent, most significantly around carbon emissions and global warming, it became too complicated. As Barry Schwartz says in his excellent TED talk, too much choice doesn’t bring happiness – it ends up being an excuse for inertia. 

And the choices continue to increase; local, vegan, various diets (gluten free, paleo, keto etc etc), biodynamic, regenerative agriculture, packaging, pasture fed, GMs, animal welfare, Red Tractor, RSPCA etc. etc. are all important criteria. I’m never happy until I know what I’m having for supper but, as an ethical foodie, I’d probably die of starvation. 

But my supper is another matter. The point is that organic Soil Association certification, by itself, can no longer be considered the gold standard of food production. Whether it ever was is an argument for another day but, either way, for many it’s become a bit of an unwanted dinosaur.  Some, like Riverford Organics, have used it as a foundation and built more dynamic and demanding layers above. Others have circumnavigated it, often using one of the tags mentioned above.

The principles we trade by
Organic and no spray veg at Ben’s Farm Shop in Totnes

Sourcing Troubles

We’ve been having trouble sourcing some organic ingredients for a while. Virtually all have increased in price or are not available whatever the price, but for some inexplicable reason, organic cane sugar has stayed the same. Until now that is. It’s been delisted by our normal supplier and all the alternatives are at least 50% more expensive. With marmalade season upon us, the timing couldn’t be worse and, combined with gas prices, it will take the price of a jar to a hefty £4. 

Using conventional sugar, and organic Seville oranges, will make a big difference so, for the first time, we’re planning on offering two Seville orange marmalades; the original 100% organic version and one made using conventional European grown, ‘beet’ sugar. Sadly, the UK has bent its knee, as usual, to the fat cat grain baron agri-conglomerates and sanctioned the use of Neonicotinoids. How they can grow more sugar beet than us in Germany, France, Poland and the Netherlands, without using what has been called bee Novichok is mystery to me, but I’m no farmer so I’ll save it for another time.

Cane vs Beet Sugar

In terms of ingredients, the horse-hair shirt wearing liberal in me has always preferred cane sugar. We conquered, planted, imposed slavery and created feudal economies; but refusing to buy the sugar really doesn’t feel like the road to redemption to me. But, ‘neonics’ aside, much of the evidence favours its beet alternative on environmental grounds. It uses less land, less water and is potentially less harmful to the workforce.  

It’s certainly not all good though. Even though needing less water than sugar cane, sugar beet is still a thirsty crop and because it’s harvested so late, when soil is at its most stodgy and clingy, it’s been estimated that the .4 of 1% of UK land on which sugar beet is grown could be responsible for 20% of our annual soil loss. It also needs prime farmland that could otherwise be used for more necessary and nutritious food. All for something we consume far too much of and don’t really need. Most of it disappears into the ultra-processed food sector to make palatable otherwise inedible food. And then there is the whole, beyond thorny, issue of neonicotinoids, but as usual, I digress. It’s all bad – except in marmalade. But seriously; I’d rather have sugar in marmalade than on quasi cardboard breakfast cereals and biscuits.  

Time for Reflection

Back to the point; I don’t know where we, as a business, are going with organics. We’re based on an organic farm and being so close, we’ve always seen it as being the right direction in which to travel. We’ve had a competitive advantage and, for the most part, it’s what you’ve wanted. But it’s always felt that the further away from the farm (all farms) it comes from, the less of a priority it is. Seville oranges are a primary product of agriculture and, given what one hears about sprays etc, I’d far rather they were organic. Somehow, being processed, it’s hard to see sugar in the same way. Please correct me if you think I’ve got it wrong.

We’re a long way from changing our sourcing policy for vegetables, meat, dairy and where available, the imported commodities (rice, beans etc) but there’s so much more good food we’d like to offer. We get approached by new suppliers, both farmers and producers, every day and, despite often flying one of the many flags (regenerative agriculture for example), it’s rare these days for any of them to be certified organic. Twenty years ago, it was a gimme. Even amongst our established suppliers, some have dropped their certification, I assume, because they don’t see it as being necessary. For example, none of our bakers, apart from Baker Tom, are certified – but they all use Shipton Mill organic flour.

It’s our 40th year trading this year and now feels like a good time for both reflection and planning for the future. Part of that reflection has been to dig into how and why we sell the things we do. Whilst we’ve never been wedded to the ‘organic’ label, we do believe in and trade by many of the principles. But, I like to think we also add a good dash of community, humanity and common sense into what I consider a fairly inflexible framework. So, as part of our 40th birthday markers, next month we’ll share with you the ‘principles we trade by’ and we’ll let you judge whether we’ve hit the mark in terms of truly ethical sourcing.

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