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UK farm leader says organic shoppers have ‘more money than sense’

In a classic example of how not to win friends and influence people, Peter Kendall, President of the UK National Famers’ Union, has described shoppers who buy organic food as having ‘more money than sense’. In the cover feature of last Saturday’s Financial Times weekend magazine, Kendall takes a swipe at the organic movement and in doing so break the cardinal law of sales: the customer is always right.

He ignores the fact that the organic sector growing rapidly in Europe and organic standards are the only show in town when it comes to really meaningful farm-to-fork certification schemes. Unlike the NFU’s trivial ‘little red tractor’ marque, the organic standard actually means something to those on either end of the food chain. Like it or not, organic shoppers are the trend-setters in food buying, and many farmers who are looking for a better return on their investment, and the opportunity of farming in greater harmony with natural processes and traditions, are going organic. In the long run, organic farming methods can represent more profitable farming, since input costs are lower and produce can attact a hefty price premium, if the marketing is handled correctly. Kendall, who was elected following a hardliners’ coup against nice but ineffectual NFU President Tim Bennett, looks to be taking the NFU back to the dark ages:

”I have no problem with organic food. If someone with more money than sense wants to pay a farmer down the road twice as much for his potato crop, that’s great. I don’t have a problem with that. Where I do have a problem is when the organic people say that conventional farming is bad for the environment, and poisoning people, to try to create a market.”

Recall that throughout the BSE epidemic, past NFU Presidents assured shoppers that there was nothing wrong with British beef. The NFU has been committed to a cheap food / low farm income policy for as long as I can remember.

Past misjudgments aside, the science is undisputable: organic farming methods avoid many of the most damaging practices commonly found in industrial-style farming. By focussing on the long run health of the soil, rather than pouring in nitrogen to support dwindling soil fertility, organic farming is more sustainable and has fewer negative spill-over effects like erosion, chemical runoff and routine dosages of veterinary medicines. On the nutrition side the evidence is less clear cut though there is plenty of anecdotal evidence and some science to back up the claim that a healthy soil produces healthy crops and livestock, and more nutritious food.

Despite all this, the growth of “Big Organic” (as practiced by Whole Foods Market and some of the big mainstream supermarket chains) has given rise to a new critique that sets local food against organic food. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and his earlier reporting in the New York Times argues that for people at the cutting edge of ethical eating it’s time to go ‘beyond organic’. The Soil Association is the UK’s main organic certifier and has recently launched a consultation on whether organically-grown food should lose its certification if it has travelled by air to reach its market. The Environmental Working Group’s Ken Cook makes the case that the problem cannot be “Big Organic” when organic farming still has such a vanishing share over the overall food market.

Wherever you come down in the debate about the virtues of sustainable farming, air miles and local food it is certainly a bad idea to follow Peter Kendall down the road of insulting the intelligence of a rapidly increasing set of shoppers who want to do right by farmers, protect the environment, improve animal welfare and eat fresh, nutritious food. People who buy organic are voting with the pocketbooks for a more sustainable food system. More power to them!

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