Published on Sunday, August 19, 2001 in the Observer of London
What's Wrong With Our Food?
How the Chickens Came Home to Roost
The Dire Consequences of Putting Profits Before Health
by Monty Don
So Lord Haskins thinks that organic food is a middle class indulgence and that the 'poor' cannot afford that luxury. What patronizing, ignorant nonsense! It highlights how profoundly out of touch this Government is with all matters to do with the countryside, food production, agriculture and the environment.
They simply do not have a clue. One of the many ways that this expresses itself is in the appointment of Lord Haskins as chairman of the better regulation task force. His only qualification is that he has made himself rich out of building a huge conglomerate producing cheap food - presumably for the 'poor'.
I have spent all this year traveling around the British Isles, seeing the effects of foot and mouth wherever I have gone and talking to people about food and the environment right across England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. And I am more certain than ever that the issue of health, food and the environment is not only right at the forefront of most people's interests but also at the heart of British politics.
Attitudes are changing much faster than politicians seem to be aware of. The history of organic food has belonged, until very recently, to a tiny minority. Food producers and politicians have scorned it without feeling too threatened. But BSE, genetic modification and the foot and mouth crisis have forced mass food production into the public domain. The likes of Northern Foods see themselves under real threat from food that is produced organically. Hence the attacks are becoming more orchestrated.
No surprises there. But the 'lobby' for organic, healthy food is not orchestrated but is itself organic, growing from every household in every town and city in Britain. Every parent who cares about the health of their children is deeply involved. Every member of a gym cares about their diet. Everybody who has reached an age where health can no longer be taken for granted watches what they eat. Organic food is not a passing fad for an affluent minority - it is for all us.
Food production in this country has been deliberately geared towards producing large volumes, regardless of quality. This has been Government policy since 1947. As a result farmers had an absurdly easy ride throughout the post-war decades and the environment was sacrificed on the altar of plentiful food. It is wrong to demonize farmers but many became irresponsible custodians of the countryside and as a nation we were force-fed 'cheap' junk food.
In the 1970s I spent two years working on three different farms and I saw cheap food production at first hand. It revolted me and turned me towards organic methods. But most people have little idea of how their food is produced, how cruel and unpleasant most dairy and pork production is and what a vast cocktail of chemicals is added to their fruit and vegetable and the ingredients for their bread before they even leave the farm, let alone what happens when they are processed into cheap junk.
Until recently the mass of people blindly believed what scientists and politicians told them. Some of us would say that we swallowed it hook, line and sinker. But the information was at best massaged and often downright untrue. Vast food companies finance research and suppress anything that will damage their share price. Successive Governments have been irresponsible to an astonishing degree in the management of our food and environment. But this is changing. We don't trust you any more.
But I believed Lord Haskins when he said that there are millions of poor people in Britain who spend a big proportion of their income on food. They have been paying with their health, their countryside and their future as well as in unseen but real cash.
Let's just take a few examples. Most of the chicken and turkey breasts that are produced in conditions of indescribable cruelty and squalor are water - up to 40 per cent. Is that cheap chicken or expensive water? We spends huge sums cleaning up polluted rivers from nitrate run-offs.
The nation's health bill soars as a result of poor diets and the evidence is becoming overwhelming that many of the modern afflictions - especially in children - such as asthma and eczema are a result of polluted 'cheap' food. Heart disease is soaring at a huge cost to the NHS and industry partly as a result of the fat-intensive diet of 'cheap' processed foods. BSE has so far cost taxpayers £4 billion and a hundred people have died. There will be more. Foot and mouth has cost £2.2 billion.
What about the years of vast subsidies paid to farmers to over-produce low-quality ingredients? What price do you put on the rape of the countryside - which belongs properly to all of us, town or country dwellers - by intensive food production, destroying insect, bird and mammal life? In this light only a fool or charlatan could call our current food policy cheap.
As a nation we need affordable good food. We need an organized supply of fresh, seasonal food with as much of it produced locally as possible. I believe that the way to begin this is in the back garden. Change the world yourself, starting at home. Then it has to extend to the farms and fields around us.
Give organic farmers the same subsidies as chemical growers - or remove subsidies altogether. Provide people with more money to pay for more 'expensive' food out of the billions that would be saved annually from the health bill. Stop seeing food as something to fob off on the 'poor' so that a few multinational companies can make themselves enormously wealthy, and accept that every single one of us has a right to the best food we can provide.
This is an issue that is not going to conveniently go away. People have had enough of being patronized by politicians and businessmen, cocooned in their increasingly irrelevant bubbles. In my travels this year I have had an overwhelming sense of politics taking more and more to the streets - and, Lord Haskins, in the soil.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001