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Organic panic

The organic lobby has hampered any chance of a sensible debate over food production. That's why Zoe

Right. I am never going to buy an organic vegetable again. I say that partly because the organic "movement" is never more huffy, more swelled with orthodoxy, more self-important than it is at Christmas; and partly because, taking into account the dried and tinned organic goods I have in the house, I will have hopefully rid myself of this fad in perpetuity by the end of the month, and be able to start the new year with a meaningful resolution - no more simply-the-best, no more preciousness, no more all-natural anything. I am a sturdy, adult woman who likes Wotsits. I am not the Princess and the sodding Pea. It will take more than a pesticide to do me damage.

I interviewed Keith Abel, the more voluble half of the organic delivery giant Abel & Cole, not so long ago, and we were talking, as sane people must, about whether or not you could really taste the difference. Go on . . . a blind test. Your Soil Association carrot against this aubergine I injected with antibiotics and grew under a sunlamp. He replied: "Can you tell the difference between a person who's high on drugs and a person who isn't? Well, mostly you can and maybe you can't, but I'd rather they weren't." It was very convincing at the time, and remains a droll and apropos remark, but actually, I do not agree. I don't care if people are on drugs. Probably half the people I know have been or are on Prozac, or ibuprofen, or a nebuliser. I am up to the eyeballs right now on Lemsip Max. And frankly, that's the kind of drug we're talking about, if we're in the business of likening a pesticide to a human agent. These vegetables are not on soil-cocaine; they're not on farmer-crack. Pesticides are subtle pharmaceutical corrections to the problems thrown up by mass production. Bring them on! I am not against ingenuity, any more than I am against mass production; if humans are to be mass-produced, as we have been, then we need to find a way of feeding ourselves.

I am a sturdy, adult woman who likes Wotsits. It will take more than a pesticide to do me damage

There are some things I do agree with: I am against cruelty to animals, and agree that if meat has to be expensive to ensure its humane treatment in life, then so be it. I agree that we should eat with the seasons; at no time in history, least of all now, has it been a pleasing or defensible use of energy to grow asparagus in midwinter, when there are plenty of onions. I agree that supermarkets shouldn't be able to set all the terms. I agree that there are specialist products - I'm thinking of artisan cheeses - that are too delicate in their constitutions to withstand the rufty-tufty world of giant agribusiness. But I do not understand how these aims came to be hijacked and appropriated by the organic lobby, so that now, they are entirely the property of that voice, whose other claims are often just daft. Considerations of animal welfare have become indivisible from the "organic" stamp (nonsensically - I do not think being a happy pig, and having been treated with antibiotics, are necessarily mutually exclusive).

We're told that non-organic vegetables take in fewer nutrients from the soil, which has been leached of virtue by the chemical onslaught, so deliver fewer nutrients to our bodies. And that's why they don't taste as good. Well, first, they usually do taste as good. Second, the salient difference lies in whether you're eating a carrot or a cream bun. The nutritional difference between one carrot and another is niggardly compared to the fundamentals of balanced eating.

Most of all, I object to the tenet of organic living that says children are particularly vulnerable to pesticides, that attributes "modern" allergies to the use of chemicals in food (well, they must have come from somewhere!), that considers infants to be chambers of purity, liable to be corrupted by any taint of bog-standard fruit and veg. I don't like the hocus-pocus of it. I hate what it says about the state of child-rearing: that we are so susceptible to superstition in our desperation to ringfence the state of immaturity to keep it separate from the rest of society (even if one possibly could, to what purpose?). And I can't stand the elitism of it. The organic credo - small, local producers, no chemicals, farmers' markets, blah - is not a solution for the eating habits of the whole country. Even if we all went vegan tomorrow, we're still years off that level of self-sufficiency. Workable solutions for tasty, low-carbon-footprint food production that everybody can enjoy will by necessity involve some pesticides, some food miles, some agri-giants, some local producers, some artisanal foods, and some courgettes that are maybe a little larger than they used to be in the old days.

This quest for purity is just another way of opting out of a national solution - it's the food answer to private hospitals and schools, a triple whammy: Bupa, Eton and Abel & Cole. It's just one more example of the middle classes looking at a complicated structure, a mixture of the brilliant, the imperfect and the awful, and thinking: wow, that looks like a mess; can't I just buy my way out?

I'm buying my way back in. It's the right thing to do, and also the cheapest. How often does that happen?

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech