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?