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Guest column: Colin Pressdee – Corrupt Crops

"Drinks can show the most immediate effect of badly made or ill-conceived production" – Colin Pressdee (Food & drink journalist) is our guest columnist this month

I was brought up on real food including freshly caught fish and shellfish, locally farmed meats and vegetables from my father’s allotment garden. I can remember the glistening fresh fish caught that morning, the scents and aromas of the garden and greenhouse, and the delicious meals that set my palate for life.

I therefore appreciate all naturally farmed, fished and foraged foods. I hence support anyone who follows the organic movement, because it is the way food has been produced throughout history, up to the middle of the last century. Only then was the land treated with fertilisers and pesticides, and now just half a century later we are faced with the possibility of growing genetically modified, or GM, crops.

If anyone has doubt as to whether the GM controversy is an overblown issue they should see the film The Future of Food. It laboriously spells out the issues which demonstrate the awesome power of the huge companies that now control a large slice of food production in the US.

The uncertainty of the benefits and certainty of some health worries has, of course, led to a ban on imports of GM foods into Europe, but only after persistent lobbying by those who have taken the time to study the subject. It is now worrying that the UK government has allocated several million pounds worth of funding for experiments with GM crops – far more than the miniscule help that organic farmers are able to obtain.

We have the choice to eat food from a free market and increasingly people are turning to organic produce. Yet there
is still much misunderstanding about organics. The traditional way of farming until the mid-20th century was natural and sustainable, as it had been for centuries. When government policy directed farms to intensify production by using fertilisers and pesticides, a considerable number of farms decided to remain traditional. 

One of these was Rachel Rowlands’ family farm north of Aberystwyth. For years it produced the finest organic milk from its Guernsey herd and sold it for not a penny premium to the Milk Marketing Board. Diversifying into value-added products in 1982 saw the birth of Rachel’s Organic, now one of the best-known organic dairy brands in the UK. The company’s products have become market leaders not just because they are organic, but because they are top quality, taste superb and people prefer to buy them.

Organic vegetables are not grown in a slurry of manure as some might think, nor do they have to arrive covered with a trademark layer of mud. But they do taste good if eaten fresh – which is the requirement for any vegetable. What they do not have is the pounding of nitrates and other fertilisers and pesticides that are used far too liberally without consideration into whether they are necessary or not.

The accumulative influence of ingesting these over a period of time has to be worrying, and we are well reminded by the warning signs that the use of DDT signalled in the 1970s.  Both the peregrine falcon and American eagle were under severe threat as a result of DDT – and it was a warning that humans could be next.

Meat derives its flavour from the feed the animal is given or forages for in the wild. Meat and the body organs will accumulate trace elements, minerals and properties of matter that are either good or bad. Natural feed that is fully traceable is far better and reassuring for the consumer than artificial feed that could come from anywhere. BSE was not that long ago and is a stark reminder of the effect of dubious animal feed.

Large estates have the scope to grow their own feed, while smaller producers should be mindful of the origin of all feed. This is an area where GM crops can easily slip into the food chain, even if they are banned for direct human consumption.
Drinks can show the most immediate effect of badly made or ill-conceived production. Everyone has suffered the hangover effects of wine that has been pumped with too much sulphur, sweeteners, de-acidifiers, let alone what the grapes have drawn from artificial fertilisers and pesticides. The amount of organic wine available in the UK is relatively small, but it
is increasing significantly in many areas. A browse through the wide selection in Planet Organic (many from Vintage Roots) demonstrates the many different producing areas and the familiar styles available. It also shows they are available at prices that are realistically competitive with any of the large UK high-street retailers.

The price of organic produce is an issue for some. But the increasing popularity of farmers’ markets and the proliferation of markets such as London’s Borough Market make people realise that a premium has to be paid for decent fresh produce.
Many traders at these markets are genuine farmers producing food in an environmentally sensitive and sustainable way, even though they might not be totally organic or registered as organic. They should be encouraged to go the extra step and join the movement against GM crops. Big companies have considerable power and they must be continually challenged, otherwise sooner or later their products will appear in the food chain.

Imagine if their next task was to produce GM grapes. That really would cause an outcry among wine drinkers.

© db August 2006

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