Real changes in the UK’s food culture are taking place and organic producers are best placed to reap the benefits.

Giving the City Food Lecture in the Guildhall, London last night (Tuesday), Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said that the era of industrial, intensive farming was a “brief blip”.

“It will be seen as a wrong turn, from which we hopefully recovered fairly quickly,” he told the Food Standards Agency run event.

“The post-war policy of cheap and plentiful food has landed us with a cheap and unhealthy diet, and a crisis of obesity and ill health,” he suggested.

But society was changing. “Researchers have identified long standing concerns about industrial farming and industrial food production.”

Demand was increasingly for good quality food, supplied locally, from farming systems that enhanced the countryside and benefited wildlife.

Organic farming ticked all these boxes.

But, as well as offering additional sustainability, there were also health benefits from eating organic food, said Lord Melchett, such as more omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk..

“Of course the FSA says that non-organic food is as safe as organic, but science cannot prove there is no risk from pesticides, for example.

“An organic shopper who, in the absence of definitive scientific evidence either was, believes the accepted nutritional differences or absence of pesticides in organic foods will benefit them, is making a rational, health-based choice,” he said.

Lord Melchett also pointed to the lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with organic food, which was perhaps its greatest contribution to a healthier society.

But his views were challenged by a number of speakers from the floor and from a special panel.

Former head of livestock at MAFF, Geoffrey Hollis, said the claimed benefits were unsubstantiated and people who bought organic food were victims of a confidence trick by the supermarkets.

Others questioned the ability of organic food to feed a booming world population and the fact that conventional schemes such as LEAF offered better environmental outcomes.

* For a full report on the City Food Lecture, see this Friday’s Farmers Weekly.

To read Lord Melchett’s speech in full, click here.