organic integrity

Considering that organic farming represents less than 2% of the overall market, it accounts for an astonishing amount of food-related media coverage. Over the last fifteen years that coverage has been overwhelmingly positive, sometimes unquestioningly and almost embarrassingly so, reflecting an idealised image of the small-scale, ethically-committed producer valiantly struggling to bring an earthy sanity to a mad world.

It is worth remembering that the rules governing organic production define a system of farming. They say nothing about how the food is packaged, how fresh it is, how far it travels, at what scale it is produced, how fairly workers and farmers are treated or whether businesses are motivated by philosophical commitment or the more conventional profit motive. In deciding whether the food you buy is part of the problem or part of the solution, organicness is just one factor in a horribly complex equation.

The last fortnight has seen suggestions in the press and on Newsnight that organic standards are being watered down in response to commercial pressures resulting from growth in the organic market - and that the Soil Association is responsible. This is categorically not the case. In my twenty years of organic farming, standards have been progressively tightened. The Soil Association, just one of several certifying bodies, has often been a lone voice lobbying to raise standards in the UK and Europe, particularly in the area of poultry. It is extraordinary to hear them being criticised for being too lax when they have been so resistant to pressure, mainly from larger, new producers, to bend to commercial demands.

Terry Leahy, boss of Tescos, last week suggested that his well-intentioned institution could not source enough UK product to satisfy its recent appetite for UK organic because producers were