‘Buy British’? A badly Soiled argument

Why should Third World farmers pay the price for the Soil Association’s ethical posturing on organic produce?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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Who on earth (no pun intended) does the Soil Association think it is?

This tiny, unrepresentative organisation promotes organic food in the UK and is the doyen of the latte-drinking, Waitrose-patronising classes who prefer their fruit and veg natural, lumpy and muddy rather than injected with chemicals and wrapped in plastic.

Yesterday, the Association unveiled its plans to make life for African farmers even harder than it already is. In order to discourage the air-freight transportation of organic farm produce from the Third World into the UK (apparently air freight is bad for the environment), the Association is planning to impose even stricter ethical standards on foreign organic grub.

In order to win the Association’s much-coveted ‘Organic Standard’ label, Third World farmers will have to show, not only that their foodstuffs were grown organically and without the use of pesticides, but also that their produce is ‘Fairtrade’ and lives up to various other ‘high environmental standards’. Never one to beat around the bush, the Association openly said, according to the BBC, that it expects some overseas producers will find it ‘impossible to meet the standards’, and thus ‘one of the things we assume this will do is eliminate the casual use of air freight’ (1).

In short? The Association is planning to bring in super-tough standards that will effectively force hard-up foreign farmers out of the British organic food market. Britons will be expected to do ‘the ethical thing’ and Buy British, instead of patronising those unthinking foreigners whose produce is transported in – yuk! – aeroplanes.

African farmers and their representatives, supported by ministers in the UK Department for International Development, have been pleading with the Soil Association not to ban or otherwise punish air-freighted organic food from overseas. The International Trade Centre, an agency of the United Nations, says that most of the imported organic fruit and veg sold in Britain comes from the least developed or lower-middle income developing countries, ‘to the benefit of rural communities there’ (2). According to data collected in Kenya and Ghana, where many farmers prepare organic food for the British market, tough restrictions on air-freighted food could lead to 2,500 farmers losing their jobs, with dire consequences for their 15,000 dependants (3).

Here, we can glimpse the iron fist that lurks within the green velvet glove of contemporary environmentalism. In the name of assuaging the eco-guilt of Western shoppers, and ensuring that the well-off men and women pottering in the aisles of Waitrose or Marks & Spencer don’t accidentally pick up organic fruit that has been flown thousands of miles (perish the thought!), the Soil Association seems prepared to put at risk the livelihoods and living standards of thousands in the developing world.

The head of the Association – that’s Peter Mond, 4th Baron Melchett, the Eton-educated son of Sir Julian Mond (the former chairman of the British Steel Corporation), and the heir to Sir Alfred Mond’s mindblowing ICI fortune – seems to think that poor Africans potentially losing their jobs is a price worth paying if it means Britain’s middle-class consumers of organic food can continue to feel warm and moist about their ethical shopping choices.

Have you ever noticed how ‘being ethical’ today seems to mean behaving like an inhuman bastard?

The Soil Association scandal captures one of the more unattractive qualities of modern-day environmentalism: its extreme localism, bordering on xenophobia (in the strictest meaning of that word: irrational fear of foreigners). More and more green and organic groups are calling for foreign imported food to be tagged with scare labels that tell British consumers how many ‘food miles’ were expended in its transportation; others are calling for certain foreign imports to be banned altogether.

Indeed, in the name of protecting the natural environment from the carbon footprint of transported foods and goods, environmentalists are resuscitating the ‘Buy British’ campaigns of old – those petty patriotic movements that called on Brits to ‘stick with their own’ and shun the produce of dodgy foreigners.

There is a powerful moralistic streak in the campaign to keep carbon-emitting organic food out of the UK. As a practical measure to tackle climate change, it makes little sense. First of all, in the scheme of things, a very small number of flights are involved in the transportation of organic food from Africa to the UK. Organic food represents a tiny part of the British food market: less than two per cent of all groceries sales in the UK are of organic produce. And only one per cent of this minuscule organic market consists of produce flown from overseas (4). Of all the things causing a ‘carbon footprint’ in Britain, it seems strange that some are fretting over the air-freighted import of relatively small amounts of organic food, which are brought here to satisfy the extreme-minority pursuit of ‘ethical eating’ as indulged by old aristocrats and housewives-who-care.

Furthermore, expert studies have questioned whether the category of ‘food miles’ – the distance edibles travel from farm to plate – gives an accurate assessment of a foodstuff’s impact on the climate. The idea of ‘food miles’ is that you can measure the carbon footprint of a piece of fruit or veg by working out how far it has traversed the globe. So if you live in London, then eating an apple that was grown in Kenya is Bad, whereas eating one that was cultivated in Kent is Good. Under pressure from the Soil Association and others, British supermarkets now upfront their locally-sourced produce and some have started sticking a logo of an aircraft on food flown from overseas.

However, studies suggest that some of Britain’s locally sourced food is a bigger carbon emitter than foodstuffs made abroad and flown here by plane. For example, a study carried out by Lincoln University in New Zealand found that 2,849kg of carbon dioxide is produced for every tonne of lamb raised in Britain, while only 688kg of CO2 is produced for every tonne of lamb raised in New Zealand, even after it has travelled the 11,000 miles from Down Under to the UK. This is because New Zealand has better weather than Britain does, which means New Zealand farmers can keep their animals in pasture for longer rather than having to rely on feed as British farmers do – and the production and transportation of feed creates quite a bit of CO2 (5).

A study by Surrey University in England found that it is more environmentally-friendly to import tomatoes and strawberries from Spain than it is to grow them here. Why? Because British farmers who grow tomatoes and strawberries tend to rely on heated greenhouses to produce crops outside of Britain’s short fruit season…and using a heated greenhouse creates more carbon dioxide than does the cultivation of crops in warmer Spain and their transportation to the UK (6).

Indeed, in response to the Soil Association’s discussions about restricting the import of organic food from Africa, the Agriculture Attaché at the High Commission of Kenya in Britain has launched a ‘Grown Under The Sun’ campaign to show that crops cultivated in Kenya’s natural climate are often more eco-friendly than crops grown in British greenhouses (7).

Like so many of the labels used by environmentalists to describe humanity’s alleged stain on the planet, the ‘food miles’ category is not an accurate scientific measurement of the impact of food production on the climate – it is a moral judgement about the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of producing and consuming things. The Soil Association and others simply think that locally sourced food is better than foreign-produced food, because they prefer small-scale production to large-scale production; local community life to international cooperation; and the parish-pump way of doing things to anything that has the whiff of modernity about it (globalisation, air travel, international trade).

In this sense, the Association’s instinctive hostility towards organic food flown here by plane is in keeping with its historical fear and loathing of modern society. As Rob Lyons has argued on spiked, Britain’s organic movement has its origins in the 1920s, amongst people who felt they were being ‘squeezed out by modern society’, amongst ‘disillusioned colonials from a declining and increasingly discredited empire, aristocrats seeking to preserve rural life as agricultural workers were replaced by machines, and churchmen trying to find a new setting for religious ideas’ (see The truth about organic food, by Rob Lyons). The contemporary organic movement is still stacked with old aristocrats and religious types who come out in a rash whenever they hear the word ‘mass’ (mass production, mass transit, the masses), yet today they are also joined by young eco-activists and green-leaning commentators who express a similar sense of hostility towards modern society. The soil obsessives and radical greens both value local self-sufficiency over complex international links between nations – so while they admire the ‘sustainable’ (read ‘simple and harsh’) lifestyles of African farmers, they don’t like the fact that these farmers have the gall to send their produce around the world for sale on the market.

Sensing that their Little Englandism is out of fashion, the Soil Association and others use the pseudo-science of ‘food miles’ to give their love of localism a seemingly radical and urgent gloss. So when David Cameron, green-leaning leader of the Conservative Party, recently called for a new ‘Buy British’ crusade, and was celebrated by the Soil Association for doing so, he justified it as part of his bid to ‘cut the carbon emissions produced by transporting food across the globe to Britain’ (8). He said we need a new ‘food patriotism’ to tackle climate change. Likewise, The Ecologist, the magazine edited by Cameron’s chum Zac Goldsmith, has called on readers to buy locally sourced food in order to save the planet.

Here, the protectionism, petty patriotism and suspicion of foreigners that underpinned earlier ‘Buy British’ movements is rehashed in PC-sounding environmentalist lingo. Only this time, foreign producers are not only seen as a sinister threat to British farmers or industrialists, but as a toxic threat to the future of the planet itself with their carbon-emitting air-freight antics.

Of course, there is little to celebrate in the exploitative relationship between Western societies and farmers in the Third World, where they work long and hard hours to provide us with cheap, nutritious food. The fact that some farmers in Africa are shunning modern methods of farming, including the use of pesticides and machinery, because they know that there are wealthy Westerners who are willing to pay a bit extra for ‘naturally grown’ food is especially worrying. Westerners’ whimsical and narcissistic desire for organic, in the mistaken belief that it is healthier than non-organic, is playing a role in blocking progress and development in the Third World. Yet in attempting to end these relationships between Western societies and Third World farmers, by demanding bans on the air-freighting of certain foods and products, greens could achieve the not-inconsiderable feat of making matters worse. Tough restrictions could leave some African farmers with no work at all, which is definitely worse than having badly paid and thankless work.

Modern capitalist society separates man from man. We are cut off from one another by borders, laws and restrictions on our freedom of movement. Pretty much the only things that flow freely in capitalist society are commodities, which criss-cross the world and interact with each other – as they are exchanged one for another – while the men and women who make them tend to stay put in their home town. It is tragic that my only relationship with an African farmer is based on the fact that he grows an apple and I eat it, rather than being something more creative, free and productive. Yet for some greens, it seems that even these very basic ties between mankind are a problem – a cause of pollution and destruction – and thus they must be brought to an end with bans or tough new rules. In short, they would make society even more lonely and alienating than it already is.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. He is speaking in sessions on Iraq, new technology and politics, and the future of journalism at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27&28 October.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons looked at the truth about organic food and noted how a good cookbook was spoiled by Soil Association propaganda. Josie Appleton asked why the great and good were threats to going organic. Alex Avery disputed the idea that organic milk is more nutritious. Or read more at spiked issue: Organic food.

(1) Organic food rule change warning, BBC News, 25 October 2007

(2) Plea to retain organic label on air freight food, Guardian, 22 October 2007

(3) Plea to retain organic label on air freight food, Guardian, 22 October 2007

(4) Food fights, Guardian, 25 October 2007

(5) Greener by miles, Daily Telegraph, 3 June 2007

(6) Greener by miles, Daily Telegraph, 3 June 2007

(7) UK minister roots for Kenya’s fresh produce, Daily Nation (Kenya), 21 October 2007

(8) Food patriotism and the political battle over your shopping basket, The Times, 4 January 2007

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