Lee Holdstock from The Soil Association blogs about choosing organic at all costs… 

Are you feeling that pre-Christmas spending anxiety?

Ah, that must be why the cost of food is back in the news.  The Guardian’s Amelia Hill paints the bleakest picture of breadline UK I’ve seen in a while, citing a recent Save the Children report which looked at 5,000 families with incomes of up to £30,000 a year. They apparently found that nearly two-thirds of parents surveyed are skipping meals to ensure their children get enough food to eat.

OK, there are UK families at the bottom of the income scale who genuinely struggle to find the money for the weekly shop. But mums and dads with a combined income of £30K skipping meals… seriously?  

I spend a lot of my time working to expand the market for organic products. Which increasingly seems to involve persuading consumers why organic food is worth the extra expense. Dear oh dear: if food poverty is this widespread, then my job has just got a lot harder.

The only thing that stops me throwing in the towel and staying home to watch Octonauts (tempting as that is) is that I reckon that for families not actually on the breadline, a gentle shift in preconceptions is what’s needed, rather than a national payrise.

I just need consumers to start seeing that although organic produce does cost a little more, on average, when you separate out the unashamedly premium products from the rest (your posh indulgence biscuits etc.) the difference is not hugely significant.

The Soil Association’s own monitoring of retail pricing shows shopper could actually save 14% on their weekly shop by switching from branded non-organic products to supermarket own-label organic.

According to the Office of National Statistics, UK average household income has nearly doubled in real terms since the 1970’s. Over the same period of time, the percentage we’re spending on food has fallen from around a quarter to under 10%.

We’re choosing to spend our money on other things. Bigger houses in the catchment  for the good schools. A second car. A holiday abroad every year (yes, catching the ferry to pop in on your friends in Brittany still counts)

Don’t get me wrong: I want those things too, but as food becomes less important to us as a society, our reluctance to spend money on it means the food and agriculture industry has to find ever more efficient ways to produce it.

The cost-cutting cut can lead to too many animals in a shed , making a decent standard of welfare unrealistic.  It can mean using more fertilisers and pesticides, and more pollution from the run-off of agri-chemicals. These are the side effects of a strangely of self-imposed food poverty. OK, I too have to regularly remember to differentiate  between a need and a want (and all too often fail) be as a society we need to start to be honest when we’re  diverting our disposable income away from basic needs like food and into status-lifting wants like TV, cars and holidays.  Perhaps I’m strting to rant now, but really, what could be more important than food: the  stuff we put in our mouths, the stuff that provides our raw building materials and fuels our  biological engines.

For families that are really struggling financially, I absolutely understand that making healthy eating a priority for a very tight food budget might just be an unaffordable luxury. And I’m delighted the Soil Association is mindful of that. There’s nothing Deli-posh about the  “good food for all” policy strand which has become a central to the organisation’s current long-term strategy.

But if the rest of us who can afford to spend a little more on good food choose to cut back on it – replacing higher welfare, more sustainable, trustworthy products that we can trust with inferior alternatives – then as a society and as individuals sadly we must sadly expect to pay in other ways.

 

Lee Holdstock
Soil Association