12 April 2002


In a recent debate former farm minister John Gummer explained that although he was happy to accept some people preferred organic farming, what he found a tiresome was the insistence of the organic movement that it must be right and everybody else must be wrong.

He said they reminded him of some vegetarian friends of his. When hosting a dinner party he was expected to go out of his way to prepare a special vegetarian meal for them. In return, when he visited theirs for dinner, was he entitled to expect a nice bit of steak? Of course not, because his preferences were wrong and theirs were right.

It never ceases to amuse me the fuss that gets made if some conventional farm produce accidentally gets into some organic produce. For example, if Mr Smiths non-organic milk found its way into a batch of Mr Holdens organic milk, Mr Holden declares his milk has been ruined and the word "contamination" gets bandied about.

It was as if the pure and chaste had got mixed with the bad and the foul. But imagine if it happened the other way round. If Mr Holden decided to mix his milk conventional supplies then Mr Smith is expected to like it or lump it.

There may be consumers who might not want organic milk. They might feel that the higher mastitis levels in organic herds raised food safety or animal welfare issues. But are their preferences respected? No.

About 40% of organic milk is sold as conventional because the demand for organic milk is much smaller than the supply. But, put the issue the other way round, all hell breaks out. It was as if putting non-organic milk in an organic bottle was tantamount to poisoning people.

It is stupid to suggest that organic milk would spoil non-organic milk. Organic milk is safe and the animal welfare record of organic producers is good. But both statements also apply to conventionally produced milk. So, why the special treatment for organic farmers?

All British farmers, both organic and non-organic, have good records when it comes to food safety, animal welfare and care of the environment. The industry as a whole should be promoting all farmers as such. The problem is organic lobbyists such as the Soil Association prefer division to unity.

They work incessantly to damage the conventional sector. They call for crippling taxes on conventional inputs. They want subsidies for the conventional sector to be taken away and given to the organic side. And they continue to undermine consumer confidence in our produce by constant suggestions and insinuation that because it is not organic it is not wholesome and safe.

In response to this, the conventional sector seems remarkably laid back but I suspect that will not last.

Many in the conventional sector are getting just a little tired of the mantra "organic good, conventional bad". It is a mantra that is now starting to effect government policy and starting to damage the conventional sector. Some, in the conventional sector are now tempted to use the tactics of the Soil Association and throw some mud back.

We are faced with an industry that is becoming increasingly polarised into two groups. It would be disastrous if those two groups were now set on a policy of taking chunks out of each other. It is time for a truce, for all our sakes.

The organic good,

conventional bad

lobby is getting out

of hand and it is time

for some common

sense, declares

Guy Smith

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