Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, has caused a stir by saying that we should spend more money on food than on holidays, according to The Telegraph. That is bound to be a headline grabber and bound to get a strong reaction but is he right?
Some years ago there was a statistic floating around which said that in the UK we spend 9% of income on food whereas in France it was nearer 19%. That says a lot about how food is valued. Some would argue that cheap food is almost a right but I would counter that by saying nutritious food is a right and not the useless pap that many companies sell as ‘food’.
How much we are willing to pay for meal also says a lot about what food means to us and generally we don’t value it all. In supermarkets food is sold on price and price alone, the cheapest being seen as the best. Low prices have to come from somewhere and it is the continual screwing down of farm gate prices which keeps the shop price artificially low. That benefits nobody in the long term as it leads to a precarious supply situation which easily creaks and breaks at the slightest problem.
Then there is organic food. For a long time organic has been branded by the opposition as a niche market and as high priced food for tuffs. The perception is that, at best organic is much more expensive and at worst a con which is no different to the chemical soaked alternative. Organisations like the NFU have vigorously defended conventionally produced food and have been quick to reinforce the niche market claims. What this has done if to create confusion and an air of suspicion in the minds of consumers.
The recent debates about food security have also jumped on the organic knocking bandwagon and made wild claims about links to starvation and organic farming. The argument is that we need even more intensive chemical farming combined with unproven technologies like GM. Government has joined that camp because it gives them an easy way out of a difficult and frightening problem.
What we really need is to increase food production in the UK and diversify the way food is grown. That does not mean super farms in the East of England supplying 98% of English carrots, cabbage or anything else. That is not resilient agriculture it is sheer lunacy. The prolonged drought in the East Anglia last year and the recent disruption to supplies during the cold spell have shown just how precarious our food supply really is.
Farmers need to be seen as a crucial part of society and valued for the work they do and not constantly knocked or seen as scapegoats for the bad practices of the retail sector. Agriculture and horticulture need to be sold to young people as worthwhile and engaging careers. There should be incentives for young people take on small holdings of land to grow food sustainably without chemicals. Land should be seen for what it is, an absolutely crucial part of keeping us alive and not as an investment opportunity.
What about organics? A large scale move to organic agriculture is not just desirable it is essential to produce a sustainable production system that is not totally reliant on oil. It is no use tinkering with the existing system in way that increase or perpetuates reliance on fossil fuels all that will do is delay the inevitable crisis. We must begin to move to a post oil agricultural system with more local production and distribution.
The days of cheap food have gone. We will have to pay more for food and I sincerely hope that we recover our respect for what we eat. A more nutritious diet could make a huge difference to public health of this country. The best thing is that people might even begin to enjoy good food again instead of scoffing plastic meals out of plastic trays while walking around our cities.
In the end it is not about whether organic food is just for rich toffs it is about the facing the realities of declining oil supplies, climate change and population growth. Food production has to become sustainable and just has to be less dependent on oil.