Small is Vulnerable

The supermarkets could kill organic farming’s potential to revolutionise the foodchain

By George Monbiot. Published in BBC Wildlife Magazine, November 2000

It’s hard to think of any industry which has been treated as unfairly as organic farming. Every few weeks a newspaper or television programme suggests that organic food will kill you, because it’s grown with the help of manure, which harbours dangerous germs. In truth, while both conventional and organic farmers use manure on their fields, organic farmers are forced to compost it more thoroughly. Their produce is, as a result, much safer.

Organic farming, we’re repeatedly told, is less productive than conventional farming. But a fifteen-year American study shows that yields are almost precisely the same, while soil quality in the organic plots gradually improves. In July, the Advertising Standards Authority banned an advert by the organic standards body the Soil Association, because it claimed that organic food is better for the environment. But a comprehensive review published just two months before showed that organic farms in Britain support five times as many wild plant species as conventional farms and three times as many butterflies. Organic farming is the victim of an unrelenting smear campaign, backed by the agrochemicals industry and its captive scientists.

But despite all the money and energy big business has spent on trying to stamp it out, it can’t be crushed. Public demand in Britain exceeds supply by 230 per cent, and is rising by 40 per cent a year. In response, the supermarkets are falling over themselves to find enough organic food to fill their shelves. In June, Iceland announced that it would gradually replace all the conventional vegetables it sells with organic ones, at no extra cost to consumers. This will set the terms on which the other superstores must now compete.

It looks like wonderful news for anyone who cares about the environment and the quality of the food we eat. But before we crack open the organic champagne, we should ask how the superstores are managing to do it. If organic food costs more to produce than conventional food, but if its prices are to shadow conventional prices, then someone or something has to pay. It’s my contention that, because of the grossly unfair way in which the food market is structured, the better provision of organic food could hurt the very interests it is supposed to defend: the environment and the small organic farmers who have protected it.

Organic food costs more because organic farmers dump fewer of their costs onto the environment. Professor Jules Pretty of Essex University has calculated that every conventionally farmed hectare of arable or intensive grazing land in Britain costs £208 a year in taxes and higher water bills. The government and the water companies must pay to remedy the poisoning of drinking water with pesticides and nitrates, the loss of habitats and landscape features, the suffocation of aquatic wildlife and the mad cow disease which intensive agribusiness perpetrates. Were these costs carried by the farmer, conventional food would be 89 per cent more expensive.

Organic farming is also disadvantaged by a monstrously one-sided subsidy system. British taxpayers currently spend some £5 billion a year on encouraging our farmers to wreck the environment, and some £9 million on persuading them – through organic production – to protect it.

So how will the superstores bring their organic prices down? Partly, it seems, by reducing their profits. As these are generally outrageous, this has to be a good thing. But, judging by what they’ve done to conventional growers, they won’t stop there.

Most superstores are trying to reduce the number of suppliers of each kind of fruit or vegetable they sell to just three or four. This allows them to cash in on the economies of scale the bigger farmers can achieve, while simultaneously nailing them to the floor. At the same time, they have begun to purchase their grain through Dutch auctions over the internet, buying only when the price falls to precisely the average cost of production. This immediately wipes out all but the very biggest and most intensive farmers, who have managed to cut their costs to below the average, generally by dumping more of them onto the environment.

At present, organic farmers are mostly protected from these vicious devices by the shortfall in supply. But as more growers enter the market, it seems to me inevitable that they will start to be treated like conventional producers. Organics have been pioneered in Britain almost exclusively by small farmers, fighting, often at great cost to themselves, against the tide of government policy and market dominance. While their neighbours told them they were mad, they maintained environmental oases in the midst of Britain’s chemical deserts. Now, if the superstores reward the bigger, opportunistic farmers, who began to convert only when they were sure the market was ready, the pioneers could be destroyed by the very revolution they tried to bring about.

This means that the growth in organic sales could, paradoxically, damage the environment. The Soil Association lays down strict rules for the protection of landscape features. But most big, highly mechanised farms have already obliterated their long barrows and ancient hedgerows. Small farmers tend to be greener. A study in the United States, for example, shows that an average of 17 per cent of the land on small farms is maintained as woodland, compared to just five per cent on larger farms. If small organic farmers go under because the market favours big ones, their land will be swallowed up, mostly by conventional bigger farms. More organic production, in other words, could lead to the loss of long-established landscape features.

The supermarkets also make money by buying much of their food from parts of the world where plants grow quickly, labour is cheap and foreign currency is dear. Out-of-season apples are shipped in from South Africa, for example, even as our own lie rotting on the ground. Once the food arrives in Britain, they cut their costs still further by centralising their distribution systems. The superstores, in other words, are doing precisely what conventional farmers do: dumping their costs on the environment. The result is more aeroplanes and trucks, which means, in turn, more noise, danger, pollution and climate change, and more disastrous new construction projects, such as Manchester’s second runway, Heathrow’s Terminal Five and the Birmingham Northern Relief Road.

As the supermarkets switch to organic food, this situation is likely to become still worse. Currently, they buy between 70 and 80 per cent of their organic produce abroad, much of it from the other side of the world. In my view, once an organic apple has been flown in from Argentina, it’s no longer organic. Even in Britain, the wide dispersal of organic farms means longer journeys: organic milk produced in Somerset, for example, is currently picked up by lorries from Derby.

If, in other words, the superstores are allowed to determine how organic farming in Britain develops, then it’s in danger of becoming little better than conventional farming, without the pesticides and fertilisers. Yet it has the potential to become the foundation of an entirely new food economy.

The Soil Association is hoping to revolutionise the way we eat by promoting sales through farmers’ markets, organic box schemes and independent shops. But I believe it should go further, by introducing a far stricter set of organic standards. These would take into account the distance food has travelled (with a limit perhaps, of fifty miles for carrots, but 5000 for bananas). They would reward seasonality, ensuring that an apple sold in May would not be approved. They would set a size limit for organically certified farms.

All this, of course, would raise the cost of organic farming still further, so it’s unlikely to work unless we also fight for a total reform of the subsidy system, to ensure that it benefits only those farms which carry their own costs. We must demand that the Ministry of Agriculture reverses its current policy of trying to eliminate small farms from Britain.

None of this will be easy, but it’s not impossible: as voters and taxpayers we are, after all, the people in whose name current farm policies are pursued. But in the meantime those of us who can afford to pay for genuine green growing can still make a difference, by buying our food directly from the farmers, not the superstores. Think globally, eat locally.

George Monbiot’s new book, Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain is published by Macmillan, price £12.