The Daily Telegraph reports that the organic food scam is ending. Middle class debt now exceeds middle class fear and consumers can no longer afford to pay the premium for organic certification. The science says it does no good.
UKAS accreditation of science may also do no good, but scientists have not put it to the test.
Why do those who can no longer afford organic baby food think that science and healthcare can afford the more expensive scam of “quality” accreditation?
Perhaps a different guilt-free future will dawn…
I have a confession to make to my wife. Every time I return from the corner shop with “normal” milk rather than organic, it is not because they have sold out, as I innocently claim. It is because I have calculatingly bypassed the bottle with pretty flowers on and curly writing, and reached for a standard two-pinta.
It is my little protest. Against the tyranny of expensive, organic baby food that is taking over our fridge – all packaged in twee, smiling, happy sachets and pouches. Dancing children and sunshine, “yum yummy cookies for little tummies” and “full of simple natural goodness”.
I was brought up in an era of Findus Crispy Pancakes and Angel Delight, and it did me no harm. I look at my nine-month-old child, with his face smeared in organic butternut squash and prunes, and suspect that I have been sucked into a great middle-class con trick. A splash of highly processed milk on his morning Weetabix will do just fine, I think.
Now, it would appear, I have science on my side. Stanford University Medical Centre has concluded that there is no clear evidence of any added health benefit to organic food. The researchers sifted through 240 different studies and were unable to identify specific fruits or vegetables for which organic appeared consistently to be the healthier choice. They also found that the risk of E. coli contamination was unrelated to farming methods.
I should point out that there are plenty of reasons to buy organic. There are lower levels of pesticides used in vegetables and fruit. The farming processes tend to be less intensive, though that means more land is required to rear each cow or pig. And, as a general rule, the standards of animal welfare are far higher – though just because an organic hen is allowed more space to lay its eggs than a free-range one (which is the case under most organic schemes) does not necessarily mean it is treated better by the farmer.
But the evidence that organic food is actually “healthier” looks increasingly shaky. The Stanford report follows a similar exercise undertaken by the Food Standards Agency in 2009, which concluded that organic food was “unlikely to be of any public health relevance”.
With sales on the slide, the industry is not happy with the American research. Lord Melchett, the policy director at the Soil Association, the charity that promotes organic products, says: “It’s definitely unhelpful. But it’s fair to say that most people make up their minds whether to buy organic based on experience, friends and family, rather than what they read.”
But outside of a minority of committed consumers, aren’t most shoppers putting organic in their basket for a variety of fuzzy reasons that it makes them feel good? “I’d never for a moment say any organic customers were fuzzy!” says Melchett.
Fairly disparate lifestyle decisions are behind many middle-class customers choosing to pay a premium for organic. Recent research by an organic trade body listed the main reasons: just over six in 10 said it was because of the lower levels of pesticides in organic, 57 per cent said it was because it was “natural and unprocessed” (though it is unclear how that was defined), and 52 per cent said it was because it was “healthier for me and my family”.
And when a group of non-buyers were quizzed why they did not choose organic, the second biggest reason – with one in five stating it as the reason – was because organic food was no healthier. The first reason overall was price.
Nutrition, then, has become a key battleground and, unsurprisingly, the organic lobby has hit back at the Stanford report. It said it had applied a methodology normally used to assess medicines to studying crops, which are affected by the climate and the weather. It also pointed out that there are studies that prove the health benefits to organic food. One long-term study in the Netherlands found that children who consumed organic dairy products had a 36 per cent lower risk of eczema by the time they turned two.
But this is the problem – every time a report championing organic is published, a rival comes out to debunk it. Also, the industry has been hit by competition from rival “ethical” schemes such as Red Tractor, Freedom Food, Leaf and Fairtrade, all of which have caught the eye of consumers during the downturn. Curiously, Fairtrade sales have continued to boom, while organics have been on the slide.
So concerned has the industry been that it launched a lobby group, the Organic Trade Board, to advertise the benefits of its food. It, however, has already fallen foul of the Advertising Standards Authority, which told it to stop running an advert that suggested organic cows automatically enjoyed better standards of welfare than standard cows.
Despite the mounting confusion, there is one organic area that continues to boom: baby food, which saw an increase in sales of nearly 7 per cent last year. It is difficult to walk down a supermarket aisle and find a non-organic product these days. The Farley’s rusks of my babyhood are shoved to the bottom shelf, while the middle shelves are filled with a whole host of brightly packaged products from companies such as Ella’s Kitchen, Organix and Hipp, all of which gently suggest they are better for your baby than normal food. One of Ella’s many slogans is “Yippee, we’re good in every sense!” while Hipp’s website says organic “means natural, pure and healthy”.
Indeed, of the 430 baby food products on sale in Tesco, 228 are organic. Lord Melchett admits that fear plays a part in the boom in organic baby food: “Mothers often say: ‘I don’t want to run the risk’.”
But too much of child-rearing now feels as if it is about following a health-and-safety manual, and I for one feel rather resentful that I should fork out for organic just because it might be a “lower risk”. Tomorrow, the baby is going to get an extra dollop of pesticide-sprayed carrots.