How to grow a better class of carrot

Organic food costs too much. Leanda de Lisle proposes a return to the rotating crops of our ancestor

Farmers aren't very popular. Those who are rich are assumed to have succeeded at the expense of the rest of us. They have cheated us, poisoned us, destroyed the very earth we live on, so they can lord it over us from their horses and Range Rovers. Those who are poor are considered too backward and stupid to succeed at anything. The best place for the lot of them is in the stocks of TV comedy. Except, that is, for organic farmers. Fashionable opinion has it that farming should be as it was depicted by the German Romantic movement of the 1930s: full of big, pink people cutting wheat by hand. We are told that the past is the future and it's organic.

But the truth is that this is neither feasible nor desirable. The way forward lies in a new kind of farming that's good for the earth and good for people. One that's already being practised all over the country.

A mere 0.3 per cent of land in Britain is farmed organically. This is due, in part, to the innate conservatism of farmers. Farming is a highly geared industry that offers a low return on capital. Few can afford to take big risks. It could cost them their jobs, their home, their heritage and their children's future. Knowing this, farmers think long and hard before they go into something like organic farming from which there is no short route back. Until recently those who farmed organically have tended to be early, fervent followers of the green movement or the trust-fund babes of the farming community - people like Prince Charles. However, the BSE tragedy, public disquiet about industrial farming methods and the high, positive profile of organic farming have led farmers to look again at the organic option. In the past year, the number of those farming organically, or applying to the Soil Association to do so, has increased by 40 per cent.

There is no doubt that we could and should have more organic farms. EU subsidies have been paid per acre rather than per ton produced since 1993. This has put organic farms on a level playing field with conventional farms. In addition, an aid scheme subsidises the costs of converting to the organic system, and the much derided set-aside scheme pays organic (but not ordinary) farmers to grow clover to improve productivity. However, being few and scattered, organic farms have crippling distribution costs and offer an unreliable supply of goods.

So demand for organic produce is not being satisfied. But once they have reached a critical mass, organic farmers will find it easier to meet the demand which will then, in turn, increase. But by how much? Telling farmers that the organic system is the way forward is like telling grocers that Fauchon's is the Sainsbury's of the future.

CWS Agriculture (the farming wing of the Co-op) set up an organic farm in Leicestershire in order to look critically at the issues surrounding organic farming. The first concern of most farmers is whether they can grow organic crops successfully. At CWS they could, and without great difficulty. Yields were down, as expected; wheat by 56 per cent. Inevitably, organic food has to be premium priced. But people pay premium prices for glossy packaging at Marks and Spencer, so perhaps that wouldn't matter. It did. The real problem with organic produce was not growing it, but marketing it, according to the project manager, Alastair Leake. "All the surveys we've done show that people think organic farming is wonderful and, if they were faced with the choice of buying organic food, then they would buy it. But when you face them with the reality, which is that the product is sometimes inferior to look at and always more expensive, then people start to shift."

The middle-class people who order boxed organic produce may get depressed after weeks of finding nothing but potatoes and cabbages in their food parcels. But at least they are happy for food to look as if it once grew in the ground or walked upon it. Many people aren't. The supermarkets put meat in absorbent packaging so that you can't see the free blood; fruit and vegetables are washed and waxed so they look bright and clean. The aim is to make food look as if it arrived on earth as a ready-made meal. The public is more than happy to pay extra for a hamburger that's already in its bun, ready for the microwave. They are not so keen to pay extra for a perfectly dull, organic turnip.

People are more worried about dying from a heart attack than getting BSE, salmonella or some as yet undiscovered disease spread by cheap sprouts. White meat such as chicken has grown in popularity over the years at the expense of red meat such as lamb - yet it's lamb that's invariably free range. The public demands lean pork, but the leaner the meat, the more likely it has come from a crated pig. Organic pigs, in addition to being fatty, often have hair and the follicles can start right down in the meat. It would be nice if people could be persuaded to eat greener, kinder food, but the evidence suggests that only a minority will pay more for a clean conscience and a dirty spud.

In the long term, the Soil Association would like to see the world farmed 100 per cent organically. But would this really be a triumph? It's far more difficult to control pests in tropical climates than temperate ones. Last year, the green pioneer Dr Norman Borlaug said that environmentalists had paralysed attempts to prevent starvation in the developing world by denying farmers access to disease-resistant seeds and crop-protection chemicals. This is imperialism of the worst kind. The only "natural" way to compensate for lower yields is to plough up more land, much of which may be unsuitable for cultivation. We are already seeing the environmental consequences of this in Brazil, where the rainforest is being slashed and burnt to make way for new farmland.

In Britain, we'd be unlikely to starve if all our farmland was managed organically. However, we'd be more dependent on imports and people would have to get used to spending far more on food. It's common for journalists to say that farm subsidies place a terrible financial burden on British families, though they now spend a lower percentage of their income on basic food than ever before. But surely it would be better if foodies and animal lovers persuaded people to spend more on their food and eat organic produce than have politicians force them to; not least because people deserve a choice, and organic food is not the only animal and environmentally friendly produce out there.

Organic farming is more a religion than a science. Farmers will use copper sulphate and sulphur on their crops because they are natural, yet their toxicological profiles show that they are considerably more harmful than some of the man-made chemicals used on conventional crops.

On the other hand, there is a new method of farming known as integrated crop management (ICM) which is based on science and also rooted in a respect for the environment. ICM takes the natural system of crop rotation and many other of our ancestors' farming practices and integrates them with the latest technology. Hedges are encouraged rather than ripped out because they are the natural habitat of creatures that feed on destructive pests. Those pesticides that are used are to DDT what electricity is to the wood fire. They have excellent environmental profiles and are targeted rather than used prophetically.

At CWS they have found that, where ICM has been practised, yields have been slightly down (8 per cent for wheat), but as so little pesticide is used costs have also declined. As a result, performance is equivalent to or better than the conventional system. ICM removes many concerns about modern farming methods. It allows the farmer to make a profit and the customer to get affordable, quality produce. For Bob Hilborn, head of primary agriculture at Sainsbury's, "it's a clear win-win for farmers and customers alike".

Customers have not yet heard much about ICM, but farmers are already enthusiastic about this "third way" and it is being promoted nationally by a charitable organisation called Leaf (Linking the Environment and Farming).

Founded six years ago, Leaf has about 1,200 farming members whose subscriptions help to support it. Most of them hail from eastern counties like Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, the supposed home of demonic grain barons who like nothing better than to rip up a hedge before breakfast. But 6,000 of these farmers have signed up to the Farm Assured Schemes, which include strict environmental (plus, where relevant, animal-welfare) and quality guarantees.

A scheme for fruit and veg was followed by one for beef and lamb and then, more recently, by one for pigs. Six months ago, the Combined Crop Assured Scheme was launched and it has already attracted 5,000 out of 30,000 grain farmers. The rapidity and apparent ease with which these schemes are being taken up suggest that the average farmer is not the animal and vegetable torturer of popular myth.

However, the proliferation of assured schemes is confusing and both Leaf and the National Farmers' Union are now considering having a single, whole farm scheme that will go further in answering customer concerns.

There is a saying that "the man who has food has many worries, but the man who is hungry has one". To a large extent, British farmers have been the victims of their own success. During the second world war and its aftermath they were asked to increase food production and they did so. By the 1970s they discovered they could completely control pest diseases in wheat and grow it year in, year out, without rotation. We now know that the consequence was environmental degradation. But we cannot throw away everything that has been achieved in the past 50 years.

Insisting that organic farming is the only right way to farm damns the people who will be producing the bulk of our food for the foreseeable future, or damns us to a time when food will again be expensive and scarce. It is a flat-earth entreaty, as helpful as Marie Antoinette's suggestion that the poor eat cake. Like the rest of us, farmers need to learn from the past and build on it. A system that integrates natural and scientific methods of food production does just that. It will help everyone do the right thing.

The writer is married to a Leicestershire farmer