The food revolution that lost its soul

As organic produce booms, supermarkets and big processing companies have moved in. Does it matter th

History is full of revolutions that succeeded and then soured, turning into something the revolutionaries would have detested. Is this an inevitable consequence of rapid change? Do people-power, innovation and idealism always give way to autocracy and empire - or to the free-market variant, global corporatism?

Changes of diet, as George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, are arguably more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion. Currently we are in the middle of a revolution in the way we produce our food. Like many others, this revolution began in a small way - an assortment of practitioners preaching a new approach to soil, land, husbandry and agriculture, and arguing that western farming methods had taken a seriously wrong turn in the 20th century. For decades, these people were sidelined both by the elites - the supermarkets, the food conglomerates, the National Farmers' Union, the late and unlamented Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) - and by the masses, who believed what the elites said about food and pretty much ate what they were told. Then, in the 1990s, everything changed. The organic movement has come of age. But has it, like so many other revolutions, lost its soul?

If you had to select a date for the start of the organic revolution, it might well be 20 March 1996, when Stephen Dorrell, then secretary of state for health, told the House of Commons that BSE (mad cow disease) was indeed, and contrary to what the authorities had been telling us for years, transmissible to humans. We had had food health alarms before and we have had intensive farming disasters since. But BSE proved the watershed, not merely because of its awful human cost in the shape of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but because it was a test of government credibility that the government failed, dismally.

Driven both by mistrust of what was in our intensively produced food and by what the government was saying wasn't in it, organic food sales in the late 1990s roared ahead, notching gains of up to 55 per cent, year on year, and setting off a remarkable chain reaction. First, Maff was forced to abandon its hostility to organics. Second, the supermarkets and food conglomerates were sucked in. Last, many small farmers saw in organics a route to salvation, not least because of the organic premium - the willingness of consumers to pay more for organic food.

Eight years on from Dorrell's announcement, organic food sales in the UK have passed the £1bn mark, the area of land devoted to organic farming is 4 per cent of total UK farmland, and about four-fifths of households (19 million) are purchasers of organic food and drink. Maff has gone, amalgamated into the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and thanks to some sympathetic ministerial input (Michael Meacher, Elliot Morley) the government has helped more than 3,000 farmers go organic, boosted research funds and support payments, and launched an "organic action plan".

Unfortunately, a lot of news is not so good. For a start, the organic market is still dominated by supermarkets and imported produce. Supermarkets sell four-fifths of produce; imports, though falling, make up roughly 56 per cent. As has been noted frequently, food that has been airfreighted across the globe may be free of chemicals, but it hardly carries a clean bill of environmental health. It does nothing to regenerate local economies in Britain, and trails behind it - in the shape of thousands of "food miles" - clouds of globally warming fossil-fuel emissions.

The supermarkets, meanwhile, still care too much for the cosmetics of food products - hence producers' wastage and rejection rates are high - and too little for the large and varied heritage of British produce and livestock. So agricultural biodiversity can go hang. The retailers' market power and ability to undercut prices by sourcing abroad also give them the whip hand over the producer - which may explain why Tesco is building more stores while farmers leave the land in their thousands.

Then there's Big Food. Multinational giants such as Unilever, Mars, Heinz and Rank Hovis have all bought in to British organic producers. For example, Rachel's Organic Dairy, a family firm that pioneered organic milk production in the UK, was bought up first by Horizon Organic, a US consortium, and then, following the takeover of Horizon, by Dean Foods, an American conglomerate with a distinctly unorganic taste, back in the US, for genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, which is currently banned in the EU. In the US, the corporatisation of organics is probably even more advanced - witness the takeover of Boca Burgers, maker of organic soya burgers, by Kraft, itself owned by Big Tobacco in the shape of Philip Morris.

Economic liberals may argue that this is normal market concentration. But it loads the odds further against the small producer. As a result, while the organic revolution itself has prospered, falling prices have cut a swathe through the revolutionaries over the past two or three years. In 2002-2003, one-tenth of organic farms stopped being organic, while the increase in organic producers slowed to just 3 per cent. Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Soil Association, talks of a "silent cleansing" of small and medium-sized producers. "They're not going bankrupt," he says. "They're just giving up."

Holden's own family-sized, 240-acre farm in west Wales is typical. His organic milk sells at less than the cost of production and he has stopped supplying carrots to supermarkets because the price has dropped from 45p to 30p a kilo. He has switched instead to direct sales to consumers. Even so, the farm is losing £15,000 a year. "The [organic] market overall," says Holden, "sounds like a brilliant success, but look deeper and you will find that many of the problems affecting non-organic producers are starting to affect organic producers, too. A whole section of our farming community is just disappearing."

On present trends, in the future ever-larger farms and processing companies will produce food in a way that fulfils the basic organic criteria - no synthetic chemicals or fertilisers, no routine dosing with antibiotics, lots of compost - but is otherwise increasingly hard to distinguish from conventional produce. Something similar has already happened with renewable technologies - the much-heralded investment by Shell and BP in solar and wind power, for example. Does this matter? If we get our food free of pesticides and our electricity from the wind or the sun, why should we care who delivers it?

The answer goes to the heart of what we mean by organic. Is it just a technology - a method of producing food - or is it a programme of social, cultural and political reform? Is it, indeed, a metaphysics? Read Lady Eve Balfour, one of its chief theorists, and you will discover a philosophy that is almost Taoist in its emphasis on spiritual and aesthetic balance within nature - which the organic farmer must seek to understand and replicate. Look at the aims of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, developed many years after Balfour's The Living Soil was published in 1943, and you will see newer ideas - the use of local resources, the minimisation of fossil-fuel energy, the realisation by farmworkers of their "potentialities as human beings". The organic movement, as Balfour recognised, "cannot be imprisoned in a rigid set of rules". It is part of a wider, evolving critique of industrial society - environmentalism, if you like, applied to human relationships with the land.

The challenge now facing it is thus almost ontological. Big Food is stealing the technology, but shows little sign of wanting, let alone understanding, the politics or the metaphysics - even if it was capable of putting them into practice (a Taoist corporation is a scarcely imaginable concept). Globalisation - which is substantively Big Food writ even bigger - is driving the practitioners out of business. If it is to survive, the organic movement must refine its critique still further. Later this year, the Soil Association will launch an "ethical trade" certification scheme that will apply fair-trade criteria - currently limited to producers in developing countries - to British farmers and processors. How much do they contribute to the community? How "fair" are the prices they receive, the contracts they award, or the wages they pay?

Some radical possibilities open up, many apparently a long way from compost and chemicals. These include merging the notions of what is "organic" and what is fair or ethical, leading, at some point, to a more thoroughgoing reconceptualisation of the way our food is produced - of the way, indeed, national and international trade is conducted, markets regulated and companies run. It will also mean some sharper choices for consumers. Will they vote with their wallets, not merely "selfishly" for what they perceive to be healthier food, but for social change, too - for self-reliant local economies, corporate reform, fairer employment practices? For our small farmers, and the communities they underpin, those choices may prove decisive - as they will for the future of the organic revolution. It would not be too much to say, in the spirit of Orwell, that on decisions about diet rests the fate of a society.