Organic Fortnight with Patrick Holden

To big up this year’s Organic Fortnight (6-21 September), Director of the Soil Association, Patrick Holden, talks to Ethical Superstore about Prince Charles, “the Lidl effect” and whether Britain can go ‘organic only’.

Prince Charles recently spoke out about GMOs – is he a good ambassador for the organic movement?
Patrick Holden: All over the world he is regarded as a global leader for sustainable agriculture. He is deeply committed to do everything he can to support a different approach to the current system – one that uses huge amounts of fossil fuels and quite simply won’t work in 10 or 20 years time. He is aware of that and I think he shows great courage in speaking up about issues such as GMOs, at the risk of controversy and I admire him for that. So yes, I think he is a great ambassador for the movement and long may it remain so.

But don’t we run the risk of Prince Charles influencing consumers to think organics are a luxury for the wealthy?
PH: Well that deserves consideration in its own right. But whether the Prince of Wales contributes to the impression of organics being for a wealthy niche is, well, less important than the issue. The issue is about organic food and farming being the only long-term solution to address the huge challenges faced by the world’s agriculture today.

What are these huge challenges?
PH: We have a growing population of 6.5 billion going on 9 billion and are faced with climate change, fossil fuel depletion, urbanisation and a rural exodus into cities.

And organic farming is the solution?
PH: For me it is obvious that the only form of farming that can address these problems will be one which moves away from a total dependency on fossil fuels towards being carbon neutral or better – and organic farming does that. I believe most farming systems will have to be based on organic principals in the next 10-15 years and organic farming will play a central role throughout the world.

How is the Soil Association reconciling the contradiction between organic food air-freighted from overseas?
PH: It seems obvious to me that trade in organic food will move away from air-freighted products towards systems with minimum emissions, such as sea freight. Whether a ban on all air-freighted organic trade is right at the moment is contentious because there is the argument that African farmers, for example, depend upon it for their living. But realistically, 10 years from now it will not be affordable or sustainable to fly food around the world. Food should be traded locally using transportation systems that are as low carbon as possible and as an organisation we are moving in that direction.

But do we have the capacity to produce enough food organically in Europe?
PH: We need to think in even more radical terms than that. We have to ask ourselves: ‘can Britain feed itself from its own resources organically?’ We are currently looking at what the effects of a wide-scale shift to organic farming in Britain will be and it’s the theme of our conference in November this year. In Britain at the moment we are not self-sufficient in food and with over 60 million people we are unlikely to be completely self-sufficient, but I believe we can be with our staple foods and that’s the most important thing.

Is there enough current evidence to suggest organic food is better for your health?
PH: The Soil Association produced a report in 2000 looking at all the research but not all skeptical scientists were convinced. Eight years later we are still not completely home and dry but there is a growing body of evidence to indicate significant increases in traces elements of minerals, antioxidants and other organic compounds which are related to promoting health in organic food. There are also the obvious benefits that if you eat organic food it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides so you are getting fewer of the harmful compounds as well as more of the good nutrients.

So you are convinced it is healthier at least?
PH: I have no doubt whatsoever that organically grown products are healthier but the body of evidence is lagging behind peoples intuition, which is often the way I think.

What do you hope to achieve from Organic Fortnight this year?
PH: In the face of the credit crunch, or the so-called Lidl effect where people are shopping cheaper – which is obviously a potential threat to the market for products seen as more expensive – it is important that consumers understand when they buy organic they are contributing to environmental sustainability. We can then move away from organic food being perceived as a niche health market to a strategic way of expressing support for a more sustainable agricultural future and I hope Organic Fortnight will help achieve this.

Are you still committed to buying organics in the face of the Lidl-effect? Is it important that Britain becomes self-sufficient in staple food products, or possible even? Is the Soil Association right to head in the direction of local trade – what about ethical international trade? Comment below.

Photo credit iLoveButter.

More: Find organic products certified by the Soil Association.

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