Peter Melchett’s speech to the City Food Lecture 2007

‘Food and values – the organic future’
By Peter Melchett, policy director, Soil Association
Speaking at the City Food Lecture 2007


Food has certainly been in the news over the last couple of months. Stories have ranged from the link between highly processed food and behaviour, to the demise of Little Chef.  Then the Daily Mail discovered, to everyone’s surprise that the offspring of a cloned cow had arrived in the UK. 

The National Farmers’ Union attacked the British Potato Council because the latter was respecting their customers’ views, and opposing a trial of GM potatoes in Britain. Today, I heard scientists from the University of Hull describing research which shows healthier, better quality school meals have increased school attendance and uptake of school dinners, and improved behaviour and academic performance.

The Secretary of State for the Environment, David Miliband, got himself into trouble for describing organic food as merely a ‘lifestyle choice’.

What he actually said was that it is better for wildlife, but that “there isn’t any conclusive evidence either way” on whether organic food is better for your health.  Miliband subsequently added that not only is there scientific evidence that organic food is better for wildlife, but also that “in many, but not all cases, [it] produces fewer greenhouse gases”.

The best comment I saw on that particular storm in a media tea cup, came from the person interviewed by the BBC who said “I take my vegetables seriously, and my politicians with a pinch of salt”.

So the Food Standards Agency seem to have picked the right issue for this year’s City Food Lecture.   I am very grateful to them and the City Livery Companies for inviting me to give it.  In the past, there has been some conflict between those of us producing or selling organic food, and the FSA, but I welcome this opportunity for discussion.

The FSA should be independent of everyone involved in food, and on the whole, I think they now are.

All of us involved in organic farming, food manufacturing and retailing, are united in our interest in wholesome food, and our support for healthy eating.  We share the FSA’s concern about children’s diets and school meals, and strongly support their campaign for greater openness throughout the food industry, and for consumers to have full and accurate information about their food.

This is also a founding objective of the Soil Association.  Sixty years ago, our founder, Lady Eve Balfour, said that our job should be “to collect and distribute knowledge so as to create a body of informed public opinion”.

We certainly do not claim to have all the answers.  Organic is not perfect.  We sometimes fall short of our own principles.  There is much still to do to improve the environmental, animal welfare and nutritional advantages of organic farming and food, and to stop our standards being eroded.

The case I want to put to you this evening is simple, I believe we are at the beginning of major changes in our food culture, which will in turn lead to profound changes in British farming.

There are some strong stereotypes of the British people’s attitudes to food, and to British farming and farmers.  British school meals are not the only part of our cuisine that have had the reputation of being almost inedible – hospital food and motorway services come to mind. 

In a report five years ago, the Soil Association called some school food ‘muck off a truck’.  That was controversial, until Jamie Oliver came along and attacked ‘scrotum burgers’ a couple of years later.

Scotland may be known for deep-fried Mars bars, but deep-fried, fast food found a ready home throughout the United Kingdom.

On top of this apparent lack of interest in food quality, came the malign influence of an unthinking worship of technology. Half a century ago, when I was a child, the prevailing view in society, and certainly in farming, was that science and technology could conquer nature.  I vividly remember Raymond Baxter on Tomorrow’s World showing me, and millions of others, the three pills that he said were already capable of providing all the nutrition a human being could need for perfect health.  When we saw the food the first astronauts were eating, dried powder in foil packets, many believed that by now all of us would be eating like that.

Modern farming was increasingly seen as meaning high-tech, dependent on sprays, treating many farm animals as if they were machines, dominating nature, sweeping away wetlands, hedges, woods, farmland birds and wild flower meadows.

Politically, Harold Wilson, who’s government I was a member of, saw our future in the ‘white heat of technology’.

With both British food and farming, the reality is now changing fast.

As with most significant shifts in public behaviour, the immediately identified causes (for example Jamie Oliver’s brilliant TV series on school meals) actually rely on a much more fundamental shift in public values. 

A number of researchers have identified long standing concerns about industrial farming and industrial food production, in particular when researching emerging public attitudes to GM food in the 1990s.  They found deep underlying unease about modern farming and food processing. 

People are suspicious because they feel that much of what is done in producing their food is done in secret – from the dark interior of the battery house, through hidden or mysterious additives, to misleading packaging.  People are not stupid.

When a big shift starts to happen, it’s always difficult to know whether this is a mere blip, or the start of a permanent change. False starts are not uncommon – it wasn’t that long ago that Marks & Spencer starting selling organic food, and then stopped, saying it didn’t have a future. The same thing happened with renewable energy technologies like solar and wind back in the 1960s.

Fundamental changes in farming are difficult for a number of reasons. But if I look at my own farm there have been huge changes over the last 80 years (which is not that long – about the time it would take a beech or oak planted there to reach maturity),

Some of these were short-lived. In the 1930s, the tenant farmers who had farmed the farm for three generations went bust in the Depression.  Mr Wharton had to sell everything, and the sale catalogues and his meticulous notes, make sad reading.  They are a reminder of just how diverse farming was before the war. 

He sold working horses, foals, cows and calves (kept for both milk and meat), sheep, pigs, chickens and ducks.   The farm more or less went out of use until the war, when under Government direction it came back into full production, including some land that may never have been ploughed before.

After the war, when my father bought the farm, new pesticides, heavy use of artificial nitrogen fertiliser, new crop varieties, and bigger and better machinery, transformed British farming.  Nitrogen was no longer needed in such quantities for armaments, and was plentiful – supplied by companies like ICI, started by Alfred Mond, my great grandfather.  

One man who worked on the farm saw as a boy the first spray being applied by a horse-drawn sprayer just before the Second World War.  In the 1990s, retired, but still working part-time, he saw what I believe will the last sprays ever applied, as we converted to organic.  When people look back on that period, I am convinced that the era of industrial and intensive farming will be seen as a brief blip, a wrong turn, from which we hopefully recovered fairly quickly.

There wasn’t much that farmers could do about the Great Depression, and of course there was rightly huge public as well as political support for maximising food production during the 1940s and 50s.

But farming became increasingly out of tune with public values from the 1960s onwards. The farming and pesticide industries, aided by the Government, fought a long and bitter rear-guard action to defend the pesticides attacked by Rachel Carson, like DDT, which was eventually banned in Britain. 

The same bitter rear-guard battles were fought to defend straw-burning, now banned, the removal of hedgerows, also largely banned now, and the widespread destruction of SSSIs, only halted by legislation in 1981.  The same can be said of the drainage of wetlands, the planting of non-native conifers in many upland areas, the reclamation of salt marsh, ploughing up flower-rich ancient meadows and so on.

My father was involved in a scheme to drain 150 acres of freshwater grazing marshes, belonging to a neighbour, which we subsequently farmed for several years.  The drainage was paid for by the taxpayer, at huge expense.  The subsequent wheat crops were bought by the taxpayer, stored at their expense, and eventually sold cheaply – dumped on the world market. 

Now, just a few decades later, many such areas are being returned to their previous state, again at the taxpayer’s expense.

Over the last decade there has been a huge shift in UK public policy on food and farming. 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.

A range of pressures, from EU enlargement to the WTO, has led to radical changes in the Common Agriculture Policy. These changes will allow many European farmers to re-connect with the people who eat the food they produce for the first time in 50 years

Real changes are also taking place in our food culture, and these are increasingly reflected in the market place.  As David Cameron has recognised, economic stability has, for the first time since the Second World War, pushed concern about the quality of life ahead of concern about economic prosperity. 

While people still largely buy on price, they actually value the quality and taste of food above price.  The environment is growing in importance when it comes to buying food, particularly among organic consumers.

In October last year, the Guardian reported that changes in consumer demand towards healthier and higher quality food had helped Sainsbury’s achieve market-leading growth in sales.  Chief Executive Justin King said they were being driven by consumers demanding better quality food.

“There is an increasing trend to fresh and healthy food,” he said. “We are in the middle of a sea-change in customers’ attitude towards quality.”  The same month Asda announced they would be stocking a thousand organic lines.  Sainsbury’s has around 30% of the UK market for organic food, which it says is clearly entering the mainstream; 15% of the milk it sells is organic.

The Soil Association has just published a report, ‘Food and values’, which discusses recent research into the British public’s attitudes to food and farming.  Copies are available on your way out if you are interested in the detail.  The British countryside is a vital part of our culture. 

Farmers are popular, and there is strong support for good quality food, supplied locally, from farming systems that enhance the beauty and variety of the countryside, and that benefit farmland wildlife.  Organic food, and all it represents, is increasingly popular.

Some people are not comfortable about shopping in supermarkets.  Currently, nine out of 10 organic consumers buy their organic food from a supermarket, but five out of 10 say they would prefer to buy food from smaller, local greengrocers, farmers’ markets and box schemes.

School meals are being transformed.  The rise in retail sales of organic have hit the headlines, but the growth in local and direct sales of organic food are more dramatic, and maybe more significant in the long run.

The revolution in catering has only just begun, but the huge changes in school meals are being rapidly followed by changes in commercial catering.  NGOs like the National Trust and the Youth Hostel Association are doing their bit. 

Innovative companies from IKEA to Center Parcs, and new entrants like fast food chain Leon, are leading the way.  But good practice can be found all the way from the Eden Project in Cornwall, via the Natural History Museum to the Tower of London.

The FSA is also responding to this value shift by committing to integrate sustainability advice with the nutritional advice it gives to the public, and I welcome this.

So why it is, as we face another huge change in our farming and food industries, that the very word ‘organic’ stirs such passion, and it has to be said hatred, amongst some of those involved?  I saw, for example, a chef quoted in the Evening Standard just last week saying that organic food is more dangerous than non-organic, a claim that the FSA have said is wrong. 

And the National Farmers’ Union is happy to ignore scientific evidence in their determination not to acknowledge the benefits of organic farming compared to non-organic.

I think this is because those that understand organic principles, organic farming, and organic food processing, know that it will mean huge and real changes.

Phrases like ‘sustainable agriculture’ and ‘wildlife friendly farming’ don’t send the same signals.  I believe we’re entering a new phase in how we farm and the sort of food we eat.  It’s true that this change is not simply informed by science.  But it is not anti-science.

It is wrong to assume that opposition to pesticides, routine use of antibiotics or to GM reflects, any sort of opposition to science.  From the public’s point of view, it reflects their collective intelligence based on experience, as well as feelings about what’s right and wrong in food and farming.

It’s also wrong to assume that people are simply being manipulated by NGOs or the media.  My own experience is that NGOs, if they are doing a good job, tend to reflect public opinion, or if they’re doing a really good job, where public opinion is going.

This new phase in our food culture will be informed, first, by public experience, particularly of the mistakes we’ve made over the last half-century. 

These mistakes include sudden and unexpected outbreaks of disease like mad cow disease, as well as the slow discovery of long-term but dramatic changes, like the decline in farmland birds and other wildlife, or the decline in the vitamin and nutrient content of our food.

Second, this new phase will be informed by the changes in public values which I’ve already discussed.  Third, it will be informed by science, and particularly by the need to respond to the science of climate change.

So what form might this new phase take? A number of strategies are being put forward to pull ourselves out of this hole we’ve got into on health and the environment, and particularly climate change.

One suggestion is that we should enthusiastically adopt new technology, increase farm size to cut costs, add artificial nutrients to food, and compete on the world market with commodity crops and processed, convenience food. This model does not fit with the public value shift towards fresh and wholesome food, nor does it tackle climate change.

Another popular option is for us to start farming for fuel. The scientific case for this is weak.

The greenhouse gas benefits of biofuels are far less than commonly assumed. For example, compared to petrol, wheat bioethanol produces estimated greenhouse gas reductions of between 15-40% per kilometre.  Imported sugar cane performs much better, producing greenhouse gas emission reductions of up to 90% per kilometre.

One of the appeals of biofuels is their assumed potential to reduce national dependence on imported fossil fuels, but biofuels from crops require a huge amount of land. The OECD estimates that the EU would have to use a staggering (and impossible) 72% of its arable land to supply just 10% of its fuel use. 

If we took a more realistic, but still considerable, 18% of the EU’s arable land, we would achieve a 1-2% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from transport. Far less, I am sure, than converting the same area to growing organic food. So this alternative vision for the future of agriculture, a huge expansion of energy crops, would sacrifice food security for an illusion of energy security.

My father chaired the British Steel Corporation in the 1960s.  In line with the prevailing orthodoxy, he believed that Britain could compete on world markets – at that time against the Japanese – by adopting the latest technology, and building bigger steel plants.  We now know that proved wrong in the long-term – newer, even more efficient plants in lower labour cost countries like South Korea, India and China proved more competitive still.

British food and farming won’t survive in the world market by adopting high-tech solutions.  But farming has one huge advantage – unlike steel, call centres or hoover factories, our land can’t be moved to India. 

If we reconnect people with our farms, produce local food, particularly from locally distinct breeds and varieties, we have a future that cannot be exported.  This is in line with public values. The policy imperative of reducing climate change impacts will also work to reinforce that strategy – as long as we farm in climate-friendly ways.

If we move towards fresh, wholesome food, and tackle climate change, then it’s clear what direction food and farming must take.  The future of UK food is seasonal, fresh and local, produced by organic farms, to minimise greenhouse gas emissions.

For many years, opponents of organic have said that ‘there’s no evidence’ it is any better.  Now the evidence is available, and as yet more emerges, suddenly they start to say ‘please can we not talk about the evidence – we’re all in this together chaps’!  I make no apology for talking about the evidence.

So how is organic doing?  It is small – but it’s trends that show change, not the absolute numbers.

Last July, a report from Mintel showed that consumers are increasingly using natural and healthy ingredients and that the market in ready meals has slowed with a rise in people who prepare dishes from scratch. They attributed the change in shopping habits to programmes such as ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’, ‘You Are What You Eat’ and the film ‘Super Size Me’.

Certified organic farming accounts for about 4% of UK farmland.  In 2005, the market for organic food was worth £1.6bn, and it grew at 30% compared to annual growth for all UK food and drink of around 3%.  That was an extra £7 million of organic sales per week, with UK farmers supplying about 45%, and the rest supplied by imports.

Over the last few years, the proportion of the market supplied by UK farmers has grown.  The current huge growth in demand, and the time taken for farmers to covert (at least three years for product to be available for the market) may suck in more imports for a while.

However, 33% of farmers have said they would consider converting to organic farming and 38% consider organic farming as “the future”.  The decoupling of public payments from production, and the reasonable public payments to cushion the cost of converting, have led to record levels of interest in conversion to organic farming.

Nearly 70% of organic food sold in supermarkets that can be grown in the UK is sourced here, compared to 30% in 2002.

Sales of organic produce through box schemes and mail order grew by 22% in 2006.  There are now 550 farmers’ markets in the UK, since the first was set up in 1997. 

Local and direct organic sales (through farm shops/farmers’ markets, and to local schools and to pubs and restaurants) are growing at 32% per annum.  In my own part of the world, a new organic box scheme, Nene Valley, sold their first box in February 2005 – one year later they were selling 4,500 boxes a week, and today they sell 9,000 boxes a week.

This is no longer simply a middle class market.  Over 50% of people on lower income groups are buying organic food, and if they buy direct from farmers via box schemes or farm shops, it need not be more expensive than non-organic food in supermarkets.

Information is limited, but studies have shown that if shoppers shift away from ready meals and diets high in meat, and buy more healthy fresh, seasonal produce and less but better quality meat, the additional costs of organic are offset.

Three quarters of parents in the UK buy organic baby food, which makes up about half the total sold. Organic baby food is available free to parents who eat at IKEA restaurants, and they are supplying an organic lunch box for kids too. Parents and school governors at many schools have opted for at least part of their school dinners being sourced from organic farms.

More recently, this growth seems to have accelerated.  Organic food was one of the star performers in a record Christmas for Tesco, and Tesco’s organic sales grew by 39% in 2006. Sales of organic turkeys doubled. 

Tesco said last week that the huge growth in sales of organic food is testimony to the fact that people will make greener choices if they get the right information, opportunity and incentive.  Marks and Spencer have just launched their new ‘Plan A’, which includes tripling their sales of organic food and launching organic cotton, linen and wool.

We are not alone.  In the US, organic food sales reached nearly $14 billion in 2005 with an annual growth of roughly 20%.  More than 70% of Americans buy organic at least occasionally – in the UK it’s around 75%.

The Government’s Sustainable Development Commission has called organic farming the ‘gold standard’ for agricultural sustainability.  The Government, and bodies like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, agree on the additional sustainability and wildlife benefits of organic farming (estimated by Defra to be worth £130 per hectare in 1999).

Even on health, there are some limited things on which the Soil Association and the Government, or in this case the Food Standards Agency, agree.

The Food Standards Agency says that “eating organic food can help to minimise consumption of pesticide residues and additives”.  Recent research at Liverpool University shows that organic milk can contain higher levels of short-chain omega-3 fatty acids and higher levels of ALA than conventionally produced milk. 

Trans fats found in food containing hydrogenated vegetable oil are harmful and have no known nutritional benefits – no hydrogenated fats are allowed in organic food.  There is more that is not controversial. 

Beef produced from animals fed a diet high in forage rather than grain has reduced saturated fatty acid concentrations and enhanced content of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.  Organic standards require that cattle be fed predominantly on forage-based diets.

So consumers are right, on health grounds, to buy organic food to reduce their intake of saturated fats, or to avoid hydrogenated fats.

Of course, the FSA say 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 way, reasonably believes that the accepted nutritional differences or absence of pesticides and artificial additives in organic food will benefit them or their children, is making a rational, health based, choice.

I would go further. Supported by the research that has been done, I believe that there are generally more beneficial nutrients in organic food, and less harmful pesticides, additives and nitrites. Organic food is clearly better for you. And it is self-evident that a farming system that is better for our environment is better for our health, and improves our prospects of survival.

This is clear when we come to consider climate change.  Climate change has, at last, come to dominate public policy considerations, and the thinking of many companies, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. 

I have already mentioned M&S and Sainsbury’s views.  In a potentially very significant move, which I warmly welcome, Tesco will be labelling all their products with their climate change impact.

The evidence shows that we will have to make radical changes in the ways in which food is produced and distributed to meet the challenges of climate change.  We must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the farming and food industries – by 60 to 80% by 2050.

We have to adapt to a world with declining oil and gas supplies.  We have to help mitigate the effects of climate change, for example by reducing flooding and reducing demand for fresh water.  We have to adapt to a world of more extreme and unpredictable weather.

Historically, alongside the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture is estimated to have caused the production of about half the world’s greenhouse gas emissions to date, mainly through land use changes.  Today, food and farming produce at least 18% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions.  As I have said, those need to be cut by 60-80%.

Farming – growing food and rearing animals – contributes nearly 9% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.  After the farm gate, transport, food manufacturing, retailing, catering and home preparation, contribute another 9%. These figures omit all emissions from importing food to the UK, which are not currently included in the UK’s emission figures.

It is clear that what was in the past seen was adding value to the food chain, will all too often in future be seen simply as adding carbon.

In farming, half the greenhouse gas emissions are Nitrous Oxide, 310 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, and over a third are Methane, 23 times more powerful than CO2.

Producing one tonne of Nitrogen releases the equivalent of 6.7 tonnes of CO2.  Emissions from manufacture of fertiliser have already been reduced, possibly by as much as is technically achievable. 

The raw material used to produce Nitrogen fertiliser is fossil fuel, currently the increasingly scarce natural gas. UK farming uses 3m tonnes of Nitrogen fertiliser annually, half of which is imported.  In future, we need to be as conscious of ‘fertiliser miles’ as we already are of ‘food miles’.

What do we know about the climate change impact of organic farming compared to non-organic?  We do not know enough, and more work is needed.  But taking into account lower yields, research sponsored by the Government suggests, as David Miliband said recently, that organic farming “in many, but not all cases, produces fewer greenhouse gases”.

Organic farming is based on renewable processes on the farm, in particular using clover to fix Nitrogen and to build soil organic matter.  Roughly a third to a half of organic arable land is not ploughed in any year, because clover remains for three to four years.

This reduces greenhouse gas emissions from ploughing.  Organic systems can also build soil carbon levels by 0.3-1 tonne per hectare per year; they reduce flooding risk and agricultural water use, and reduce vulnerability to drought.

Organic farming has a lot more to do.  We have similar inputs into the farm as non-organic in terms of machinery and some packaging, fuel and electricity use.  Some significantly lower yields of organic crops give more greenhouse gas emissions per tonne of production. 

Longer lived, slower maturing animals may consume more energy per tonne of output, this depends crucially on diet.  Methane is a real problem, as the science is still lacking.  Longer lived, slower maturing animals will produce more methane per tonne of production, and it is unclear if an organic or all grass diet will make things better or worse.

Beyond the farm gate, the bulk of organic sales go through supermarkets and suffer from many of the problems of concentration of production and processing, and long distance distribution, as non-organic. 

So organic food’s greenhouse gas emissions after the farm gate may be similar to non-organic, depending on transport (and especially the use of airfreight), the degree of processing, and levels wholesale, retail and consumer waste.

Even with the uncertainties, in a world of increasing scarcity of fossil fuels, organic farming provides the only environmentally, or economically, sustainable system of feeding the world.

Globally, organic farming will not require more land to be brought into cultivation. Recent research by Danish and American scientists suggests that if all farming was organic, the slight decrease in yields in the northern hemisphere would be more than matched by overall increases elsewhere, leading to a slight increase in total food production.

Long-term trials in the United States show organic yields matching those from non-organic systems, with organic farming outperforming non-organic in drought years.

Rising energy prices will help reinforce what the farming and food industries need to do to tackle climate change.  Farm input prices will increase, especially Nitrogen fertiliser, so non-organic farming will become more expensive. 

Electricity costs for indoor production will increase, favouring seasonal outdoor production; the cost of importing food will increase. Costs of food processing and packaging will increase.  Economic pressures will favour organic, local, seasonal, and unprocessed food.

If climate change has one positive lesson for us, it is that we can’t conquer nature.  We are part of, not superior to, or in charge of, the natural world.

Organic farming and food do not have all the answers.  But solar-powered, animal and wildlife friendly, pesticide and additive free farming and food, is where we’re heading. This is in line with underlying public values, and in response to strong policy drivers.

Referring to Tesco’s decision to fix a carbon price label to the products on its shelves, last Sunday’s Observer said in an editorial that ‘the future is the low carbon-emission politician’.  The future is also low carbon food and farming, and luckily, this change will be supported by public values, and is in line with trends in the market.

Of course, there are huge entrenched interests that are threatened by the changes I’ve described.

But we now have a new vision for British food – seasonal, unprocessed, local and organic – tasty, healthy and environmentally sustainable.  This is turn should drive how we farm.

We will enjoy better food, better health, a better environment, more jobs in rural areas, and a more beautiful countryside.

We are seeing the start of a revolution in our food culture and farming practice.  We don’t need to wait for governments or companies to make these changes.  All of us decide what we eat, so all of us can make a difference.