Breaking the Foodchain

Tesco is going organic, but this might not be good news

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 5th November 1996.

At last a superstore is giving people what they want. Tesco has started selling organic fruit and vegetables for the same price as its conventional lines – for the first time in decades consumers of onions and avocados need know no fear. This brave move is costing the company a lot of money – in other shops organic vegetables sell for up to twice as much as poisoned produce – but Tesco hopes that its subsidy will pay off. Demand, it says, has been stifled by high prices, because producers have not been able to take advantage of the economy of scale.

The company’s decision to bring organic food within ordinary people’s reach is commendable. But it may be disappointed if it believes that this will stimulate organic farming. For Tesco’s analysis is flawed. It is not demand that has failed, but supply. Organic box schemes (deliveries of organic fruit and vegetables from local farms) are over-subscribed wherever they operate. Waitrose complains that it is struggling to find produce of a high enough standard, as there are simply not enough organic farmers to choose from. A MORI poll commissioned by the Soil Association shows that a clear majority of consumers would choose organic food if they could.

The reasons for the demand are hardly mysterious. Every month reveals new food horrors, and the responses of both government and farmers’ organizations are less than reassuring. When people cleared the shelves of cut-price beef, commentators lamented their lack of discrimination, but in truth many punters were ahead of the pundits. Nearly all the food we eat should carry a government health warning, so you might as well be hanged for a cheap cow as an expensive lamb.

But farmers need be both rich and eccentric to respond to the hunger for organic food. While taxpayers contributed £3 billion last year to the destruction of the environment and the poisoning of our produce, MAFF handed out just £270,000 for organic production. Organic growers receive subsidies of £70 per hectare, declining to £25 after five years, and nothing after that. Barley barons polluting the groundwater with nitrates and the rivers with pesticides get a steady “arable area payment” of £269 a hectare.

The “polluter pays” principle, often cited by government as the way to clean up dirty industries seems somehow to have eluded the good folk at the Ministry for Amalgamating Fact and Fiction. With neither stick nor carrot in evidence, there is simply no incentive for conversion, as a result of which only 800 farmers in Britain have taken the plunge.

Tesco, of course, can’t do much about all this, and is condemned, for now, simply to address one market distortion with another. But making better food available, however laudable, regrettably solves only a fraction of the problems inflicted by our food industry.

Supermarkets have a number of unfortunate habits. They customarily order far more food than they need, knock down the price, then turn away the surplus produce on the flimsiest of pretexts. Their demands for perfectly spherical apples and identical carrots mean that vast quantities of food are dumped. Their centralized distribution networks lead to the most extraordinary ergonomics. Lettuces are trucked from the Lea Valley to Herefordshire, while others find their way from Herefordshire to Basingstoke. Fish is brought in at Aberdeen, trucked down to Cornwall for smoking, then hauled back up through the country for distribution. It’s not hard to see why the supermarket chains are among the most vociferous members of the British Roads Federation.

We need a wholly new food economy: equitable, accountable, and efficient. This means closer links between producers and consumers, so that people know where their vegetables are coming from, and can visit the farmer if they want to see how they are being grown. It means the promotion of crops in season, rather than the celebration of proleptic chimaeras. It means attending to the environmental and social impacts of every stage of production, distribution and disposal.

I would love to be persuaded that the superstores are capable of this, but at the moment I simply can’t see it. Organic producers are just as vulnerable to their cruel vicissitudes as conventional farmers, lorries trucking organic produce from Land’s End to John O’Groats and back again are just as polluting as lorries laden with conventionally toxic food. Positive as its initiative is, Tesco remains part of the problem, not part of the solution.

While the superstores jostle for our attention, almost imperceptibly a different kind of marketing network has been spreading through our cities and villages. Organic box schemes, farm shops, food cooperatives and fair trade outlets remain all but invisible to most people in Britain, but are growing, in some places, with astonishing speed. They have started treating the consumer as the consumer deserves to be treated – as an intelligent, responsive, social being, rather than another transferable good.