A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, November 07, 2003

And there were serpents in the organic Garden.....

This week the media have become typically over-excited about the sales of 'organic' food - it really is the chattering classes at their most 'gushing'. And that is not my word. For once, the Guardian's John Vidal and Stott the Stag are not entirely locking antlers. In a much more balanced piece than usual, 'Chinks in the organic food chain' (The Guardian, November 7), John writes: "To put the Soil Association's gushing statistics in perspective, that £1bn is only about 2% of the British food market - just 5% of Tesco's annual turnover. Despite a decade of intense promotion by powerful non-government, grassroots groups and supermarkets, the annual market for organic food is still worth less than what the British spend on burgers or fish and chips." (I knew there was something fishy- that's why cod's off! It's codology and conspiracy all round. Caught, hook, line and sinker.)

Moreover, growth in organics last year was down, and the shopper base remains dangerously small and somewhat precious, with only 8% buying over 60% of the organic food on sale. John's article goes on to analyse the commercial serpents coiling to strike in the Garden, and it would have been an excellent comment if only John could have resisted the inevitable side swipes at Sir John Krebs, the admirable Head of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) (who refuses to compromise on the science), and at GM crops.

Most interestingly, today's 'Business Section' in The Guardian carries a timely reminder, 'BFG puts organic disaster behind it', of how the 'organic' ideal nearly did for the supermarket chain, Iceland, which attempted, and I quote, "to convert the nation to organic food". The company, now renamed the Big Food Group (BFG), I am pleased to note, is showing signs of recovery having gone back to its roots of specializing in frozen foods. The chief executive, Bill Grimsey, is reported as saying that, "Every week we are championing the British housewife - who is striving to put together a meal for a family of four on a tight budget."

And that, of course, is a most crucial point. When you hear Radio 4 (e.g. the Food Programme) and other largely middle-class broadcasting outlets lauding the 'organic' option, always remember that, in reality, this constitutes only 2% of the British food market at prices which only around 8% of the populace can afford on a daily basis.

In the Garden, it seems that 'organic' agriculture is a pretty expensive fig leaf.

Morning coffee - or should I open that natural, organic, herbal, fresh-as-a-spring-meadow, morning tea nicely wrapped up in cellophane? What do you think? Philip that Old Curmudgeon.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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