Tuesday, 8 July 2008

hi ho silver lining

It is only in recent years that Britain has begun to develop a food culture.

For many years we rightly had an appalling reputation for our food. Our national cuisine was characterised by over boiled vegetables and stodgy puddings. Okay, as a nation our understanding of food and skill and awareness of cooking are still depressingly low. But…

In the past ten years, there has been a flourishing of restaurants, a recent interest in locally-grown and seasonal food and a reawakening interest in regional specialities. And, of course, we have the cult of the T.V. chef.

Going with this has been a growing interest in organically grown food – my own passion.

Have we begun to see a change in British attitudes – or is it just a change in behaviours? Attitudes take a lot of shifting, behaviours change quickly, and can change back again just as fast.

The portents are predictable and not good. This week, one of Britain’s flagship retailers and promoters of high value added food, M&S Simply Food, announced big losses. Their food wasn’t selling. On the other hand, discount food stores like Aldi and Netto were doing well. As the British consumer looked to save money, the first sacrifices as always, were food. And yes, as sure as eggs are eggs, we can expect to see the range of organic produce steadily reduced when we visit the superstore over the coming period.

Organic will always cost more because non-organic methods cut corners and make sacrifices that are not always obvious, but are surely there. Intensive production is based on the false economics of cheap oil. When oil prices rise, so does the cost of intensive food production. If the polluter paid, the hidden costs of inorganic methods would make organic food look competitive.
My organically grown potato crop is smaller than the crop of someone who irrigates throughout the season and pumps the plants with fertilisers, removes weed competition with weed killers and kills bugs with pesticides.
But, sadly, we continue to allow the food market to be skewed and the consumer has come to expect the artificially low prices of intensive, non-organic methods of production.

So, will organic food become (even more) the choice of the faddish middle classes? The answer is likely to be yes; which is a bleak and depressing conclusion. We can also expect that the tired old arguments about the benefits of genetically modified food will be brought out. This time, resistance will be lower because the price issue will be more potent.

But something else could happen.
As prices rise, those of us committed to growing our own organic food will find that we are making greater savings. We will continue to have a greater choice of locally grown, organic fruit and vegetables than those who rely on supermarkets. We can even afford to buy organic produce if we consider the savings we have made throughout the rest of the year by growing our own high-quality organic food.
And it could also be that intensive, high input methods of food production become more expensive and that the gap between these and organic narrows.

So, as ‘the credit crunch’ continues to have an effect reducing our spending power; as rising oil prices drive up the cost of food production; as the demand for food continues to expand on the world market, thus pushing prices higher; and as biofuel crops become more profitable to grow than food there is a sliver of silver lining.

Growing our own organic vegetables continues to be good for the environment, good for us – and good for our wallets!

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