Contrary to most of the press coverage, the Food Standards Agency report published last week did not prove that organic food was no better for you than non-organic. It merely showed that there was no conclusive evidence either way, on the grounds of a limited review of existing research into a limited range of nutrients taken in isolation.
A customer’s thoughts
Thankfully many of our customers read past the headlines. Diane sent us this email in response to the FSA report:
“Firstly I would like to thank you for todays box of fresh, tasty, reasonably priced, nutritious vegetables, grown with conscience and compassion and most importantly without man-made chemicals.
I have just read the accompanying newsletter entitled ‘misguided?’ and I thought perhaps a ‘customer’ reaction to the FSA’s report might be gratifying for potentially damaged morale. I personally found the well publicised conclusion of the report somewhat incredulous; how can such a statement be made when only a number of nutrients have been considered and no other aspect of production has been taken into account. Additionally, does this statement truly reflect analysis that shows a positive increase in a number of important nutrients but which appears to have been ignored on the basis that there are too few studies to take the data from. During the last week it has become very apparent to me that many people simply scan read the newspaper primarily noting the headlines, no doubt as a result of our busy lives. Such statements/headlines are therefore often taken out of context with potentially damaging results. Perhaps we need to consider who stands to gain from such statements; are the interests of the global chemical giants being protected here? One would hope not but it is a worrying thought.
Keep up the good work Riverford, we still love you despite what you may read in the papers!”
We all know that air travel is the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions, so should the Soil Association try and discourage bringing organic vegetables to the uk by air? Or even refuse to grant anything air freighted organic status? If so, what about the African farmers just starting to make a living selling the organic green beans flown in to the UK?
At Riverford we have never air freighted anything, but we know it’s a complex issue and there’s an interesting consultation document on the Soil Association website
As Anna Bradley, Chair of the Soil Association Standards Board says: “as awareness of climate change has grown, concerns have been raised about the damage caused to the environment by air freight.
However, when reducing our impact on the world’s climate, we must carefully consider the social and economic benefits of air freight for international development and growth of the organic market as a whole.”
There’s a rather scary podcast on the Soil Association website about how intensively-farmed animals are devoloping a form of MRSA, which is spreading like “wildfire” in Europe and transferring to humans.
In Dutch hospitals a terrifying 25 per cent of all MRSA cases are now caused by the farm-animal strain, and farmers are no longer permitted in general wards without prior screening.
Scientists are blaming the over-use of antibiotics for creating the drug-resistant strain, and an almost untreatable form of e-coli, which means death for 30 per cent of people who contract it.
All of which makes a powerful case for organic farming!
The debate is really hotting up about ‘green’ consumerism.
George Monbiot wrote a piece in the Guardian recently arguing that buying green is not good enough, we should be buying less, and ‘ethical’ options are becoming just another way of showing how rich you are. Now the chief executive of the National Consumer Council, Ed Mayo, has written a piece in response saying that buying green does make a difference.
Presumably the sensible middle ground is to buy less rubbish, and make sure the stuff you need – like food – is sourced as ethically as possible? Besides, it doesn’t even have to be more expensive. A Riverford box is ususally cheaper than supermarket organic food, and compares very favourably with their non-organic produce.
One of the worst things about the supermarket dominated food supply system is the way it has undermined this country’s long established horticultural grower base.
On a recent trip to Moss Side to see potential partners or growers for our network of farms, I was struck by the general air of despair in an area that, not so long ago, was thriving on providing excellent produce for nearby Manchester. It seems to be a similar story in Evesham and Kent.
Many smaller growers have been beaten into submission by the demands of the supermarkets’ centralised supply chain and all the prescriptive stuff that goes with it.
I admit that I had no idea the extent of what I was getting into when harvesting my first vegetables onto a wheelbarrow in 1986 or even when delivering the first boxes from a beaten up transit in 1993.
Though I am very proud that so many people across the country now enjoy our boxes and that our co-op members have a secure market for their produce, I never wanted to run a huge company and remain sceptical of the ongoing benefits of scale.
So, we are in the process of joining forces with farmers in other parts of the UK. The idea is to retain the social, environmental and economic benefits of small, local businesses, so retaining autonomy and regional character, while sharing the benefits of accumulated knowledge – be it the best carrot variety, how to control weeds in rhubarb or what to put in a box in February.
If our sister farms continue to grow at the present rate we will divide them to reduce food miles further and keep them at a personal size. The only hard and fast rule for our partnership of farms is that our decisions will be made as locally and with as few rules as possible, even if this does result in a little anarchy.
According to a story on the BBC News website today the milk Tesco sells branded as “local” has travelled over 150 miles from where it was produced. The supermarket claims that shoppers who buy Localchoice milk are “helping to support their local farming community”, but the Heart of England version it sells in Hereford is actually produced in Derbyshire and Lincolnshire!
In it’s defence Tesco said: “There is no legal definition of local.” Well, perhaps there should be!
Some of you have already commented on the media hoo-ha over Sainsbury’s rejecting the head of the Soil Association’s carrot crop. As the eventual buyers of Patrick Holden’s carrots, we think that this saga highlights the lunacy of the supermarkets’ controlling and overly centralised approach to buying and selling food.
Sainsbury’s said they rejected the carrots because they were destroyed by rot. The fact is that we eventually bought over half Patrick Holden’s crop in grade A condition and our veg box customers loved them – rightly so because they were great.
When it comes to rejecting crops, the supermarkets like to make out that their hands are tied. The reality is that they are incredibly prescriptive in what they deem acceptable. Shape, size and minor blemishes all lead to rejection, waste and a financial squeeze for farmers.
The supermarkets demand that 75% of a crop is packable which is why the farmers that supply them are often forced to focus on appearance at the expense taste. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Veg box schemes like ours cut the supermarkets out of the distribution chain and this has to be good for both farmers and for customers. There is life beyond the supermarkets and it tastes good.