Thursday, 28 November 2013

For crying out loud!

'Buy organic! It's ever so mainstream.'
'Such has been the trajectory of some of his most cherished causes that decades after lending support to, say, organic farming and alternative medicines, such matters are accepted as mainstream today.' Andrew Roberts on Prince Charles in the Sunday Telegraph via the i's News Matrix

I'm sorry? Does Mr Roberts write the above about Prince Charles with a straight face? If so, he should be ashamed of himself. As should Prince Charles if it's true that his influence has made this stuff more mainstream. Luckily, though, I think that Mr Roberts is at least in part wrong, because the forces of reason are, to some extent holding out against Prince Charles' self-proclaimed attack on the logical and analytical approach of the Enlightenment.

Is organic farming mainstream? I suppose you could say it is in the sense you will find it in the supermarkets, though interestingly it seems to be getting less and less shelf room, which presumably indicates that customers are getting fed up of paying a significant premium for organics. After all, from most supermarkets' viewpoint, organic food is just a way of getting people to pay more for what is essentially the same product. The same view is also true of at least some organic farmers - I have certainly talked to a fair number who went organic because they saw a way of earning more for their produce, not because they backed some sort of spiritual Royal campaign. And good for them - I'm not suggesting they were cynical, merely sensible.

However, the reason people buy organic food is frankly often as fuzzy as the reason they, for instance, would prefer to shop at Waitrose rather than Asda. Not because what the two shops sell is often any different, but because Waitrose gives you that nice warm glow of middle class belonging, where Asda leaves you mixing with more of the common herd. They won't admit to that, of course. They will tell you there are two reasons for going organic - because of health benefits and welfare concerns. Or even to be green.

On welfare, it is certainly true that in the UK, organic animal welfare is very good. There is no reason why it should be any better than a good free range non-organic farm, but at least you have some degree of checking on that welfare done by the Soil Association, or equivalent bodies. (You have to be very careful about imported goods labelled organic, as in a lot of countries there is a lot less checking - if any at all - before that premium 'organic' label is applied.) There is one negative aspect on welfare, which is that the Soil Association encourages farmers not to treat sick animals using homeopathic remedies, so sick animals often have worse welfare on organic farms, but on the whole the regime is good.

The health aspect from eating organic is less sound. There has repeatedly proved to be no taste or nutrient benefits from organic farming. I have always deeply respected Helen Browning, a local organic farmer and bigwig in the Soil Association, who once told me 'The only health benefit we claim for our organic meat is that it is more healthy than eating a bag of doughnuts.' And as I have shown elsewhere the claim sometimes made about organic food having health benefits due to a lack of 'poisons' like pesticide residues is totally spurious.

As for being green, making sure your food is grown locally is the greenest thing you can do, rather than worrying about it being organic. Organic farming methods are usually worse for the environment in carbon emissions, though better in releasing less nitrogen-based pollution. There's not really a lot to be said either way.

As for Prince Charles' other obsession with alternative medicine I hope it is fair to say that this still isn't mainstream. Hope because much of what he champions is such a load of tosh. Two specific examples - as I've previously discussed, a 'tincture' claiming to detox is a load of bull excrement that would work wonders on any organic farm. And as for Charles' favourite, homeopathy, it's hard to think of a way of getting money out of customers that is less dependent on any kind of logic. Again, I don't need to revisit the detail, but I would refer you back to the lack of danger in taking a homeopathic overdose and a proposal for a new more efficient way to produce homeopathic pills.

Thankfully, then, it seems that Prince Charles' 'trajectory' has yet to drag the majority of us back into the dark ages. But it's always worth keeping an eye out just in case. The forces of unreason are ever amongst us.

Image from Wikipedia

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