[Foodplanning] Feature: Will the Surging Popularity of Organic
Foods Destroy the Very Idea Itself?
vasishth at usc.edu
Thu Oct 5 18:01:10 PDT 2006
Supermarkets accused over organic foods
Pressure to ease standards, say experts
Sandra Laville and John Vidal
Thursday October 5, 2006
Supermarkets are putting pressure on organic food watchdogs to lower standards so they can fully exploit a billion-pound industry which is growing by 30% a year, according to leading figures in the movement.
Fears that organic farming is falling victim to commercial pressures to abandon key principles have led to disputes in the Soil Association, the gold standard of the groups that certify "green" products.
Lawrence Woodward, a pioneer of the organic movement and a former head of the association, told the Guardian many producers were taking advantage of grey areas in the regulations for organic farming, and the public were being conned.
"There are lots of loopholes in the regulations and in practice these are being heavily exploited," said Mr Woodward, who is now chief executive of an organic food research foundation. "Organics is increasingly becoming industrialised and the consumer will one day wake up and see this stuff is not what they think it is."
The issue of lowering standards has caused a split in the association, particularly over the licensing of salmon farming as organic.
Peter Kindersley, who runs an 800-hectare (2,000-acre) organic farm in Berkshire, resigned as a trustee of the association over the issue. Speaking for the first time since his departure, he told the Guardian: "It was a complete betrayal of everything organics has stood for on every level. Salmon farming breaches all the basic principles drawn up by the founders of the organic movement; animal welfare, biodiversity, recycling of pollution and the avoidance of agripesticides."
His views were supported by Mr Woodward, who helped draw up the original guidelines that set the parameters for the organic movement. He said the certification of salmon farming as organic, was a "monumental symbol" of the way the principles of organic production were being dumbed down.
Claims of the relaxing of key principles in the organic movement come amid pressure from Sir Terry Leahy, the Tesco chief executive, for the British organic movement to become more "professional". Sir Terry said this week the failure of British producers to keep up with demand for organic food meant he had to source 70% of his organic range from abroad. The UK approach restricted production, he said.
Mr Woodward said Sir Terry's remarks were akin to those made by Justin King, the chief executive of Sainsbury's.
The Soil Association confirmed yesterday there was intensive lobbying from supermarkets to drop standards. But Patrick Holden, the director of the association, denied that it was succumbing. "If anything we are getting more rigorous," he said. He defended the move to certify salmon farming, saying it was in the public interest for his organisation to improve the industry, given that half the fish consumed in the world was farmed.
In Britain 10 regulatory bodies certify organic farmers and producers, but the minimum standards are drawn up by EU regulations and controlled by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Mr Woodward said examples of "lowering standards" were the large numbers of "derogations", or get-out clauses, allowing farmers to be awarded organic licences even though they do not meet the correct standards. These include the use of conventional feed for poultry, the continued practice of slicing the beaks off chickens to prevent them mutilating each other, and the sale of organic chicken from flocks of 2,000 and more, even though the association recommendation is 500.
Richard Jacobs, the director of Organic Farmers and Growers Ltd, said: "What was a niche market is now becoming mainstream and that requires that it is run in a commercial and professional manner. I don't think that's the industrialisation of organics or dumbing down. It is the realisation of a fast-growing market."
A spokesman for Sainsbury's denied that it was pressing for a lowering of standards. A Tesco spokesman said: "It is nonsense to suggest we are putting pressure on anyone to reduce standards."
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