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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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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times