Just how cheap is cheap food?
"Civilised man has marched across the face of the earth and left a desert in his footprints."
(Source unknown, quoted in EF Schumacher's influential book Small is Beautiful)
We all love cheap food. When we buy food from conventional farms (via the supermarket) we like to revel in how cheap it is.
The fact is, here in Europe, we have paid at least 3 times: once for the farming subsidies which go towards the cost of fertilisers; again for the food itself and thirdly for the decontamination at sewage plants and water treatment works.
The bill for cleaning pesticides from water supplies goes up year on year.
In addition there is another hidden cost - the cost of the health problems which result from sub-standard food.
While in many ways we are healthier than ever before, there is also a growing number of people who suffer multiple allergies and other health problems which have been linked to our pesticide habit.
There are also many pesticides which are known carcinogens - i.e. they have the potential to cause cancers. According to the Pesticides Action Network as many as 160 pesticides may fall into this group.
There is also the wider cost to our living environment.
Bird populations in Britain, for example, have declined steeply in recent years. Scientists have linked declining numbers of farmland birds in particular, to the use of pesticides in intensive farming over the last 50 years. The decline continues unchecked for many species, despite valiant efforts from wildlife groups such as the RSPB.
Many species are affected by both the depleted soils and chemical residues left after spraying. Wildflowers are also rarer and the food species birds need to survive are more scarce.
When you add up all these hidden costs - can you really believe that cheap food is worth the cost? The hidden costs of "cheap food" are borne by us all as tax-payers and as living beings.
Organic horticulture and agriculture create the right conditions for healthy, vibrant crops. They do this by feeding the soil which in turn feeds the plant.
This is in contrast to chemical farming, where the main aim is to feed the plant directly with NPK fertilisers. The soil is mainly used just for support and as a reservoir of moisture.
Although organic food is more expensive in most places, if it were to get a little more help from governments it would compare very favourably with conventionally grown food, especially when you factor in such things as the environmental and health benefits.
The Farm Bill in the US (2008), for example cost around $100 billion for each of the five years it covered. Organic farmers - and farmers making the transition to organic were unlikely to benefit from much of that money. A good deal of the subsidies go to large farms and prop up the chemical agribusiness which delivers "cheap food". These subsidies also disadvantage food producers from developing world counties.
In the UK small mixed farms and horticulturalists are at a disadvantage compared to large land owners in the race for subsidies; the pressure is on for farms to be ever larger and more "efficient", often at the cost of animal welfare and human health.
To understand a little more about organic food and why it is better than chemically grown cheap food, here's a brief history.
The Modern Organic Movement
The organic movement grew up in response to chemical agriculture in the early 20th century.
About the time of the first synthetic fertilisers, pioneers such as Sir Albert Howard were studying oriental organic systems (still going strong after thousands of years) and experimenting with them for use back home in England.
Howard was stationed in India as a research scientist. He was able to observe the local composting and recycling methods. These he adapted for use in Britain as the "Indore" method, which is still used today.
Howard realised that Liebig's model of plant nutrition was not complete. While plants can get many of their main nutrients from dissolved chemicals, the micro-biological processes of the soil are very complex. Plants both exploit and support fungi and bacteria in a close community at the rootlets: much of their nutrition derives from this symbiotic relationship.
Complex interactions between soil micro-organisms such as bacteria and the plants' roots enable nitrogen and other necessary elements to be taken up by the plant as needed.
Howard realised that the role of composting was crucial for soil health. It is only what nature does, speeded up and concentrated.
After all, every forest floor is a composting factory!
Lady Eve Balfour was an early pioneer who established an organic research centre in Haughley, Suffolk. For forty years she worked to establish the link between soil health and human health. Her work, "The Living Soil and the Haughley Experiment" was published in 1976. Her work is continued today at Elm Farm Research Centre.
In 1946 she and Friend Sykes founded The Soil Association. (www.soil-association.co.uk) The Soil Association is the organisation that regulates organic growers in the UK, ensuring high standards for our food.
Organic cultivation has undergone a resurgence in the last few years.
People's fear of disease has been fuelled by recent crises such as the BSE disaster and the revelation that high percentages of our foods are contaminated with pesticides.
There is also a growing awareness that conventional farming is just not sustainable, as it is so dependent upon synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, many of which are derived from natural gas and oil. Both these resources are limited and declining.
There are now many organic growing initiatives worldwide.
Cuba, for example, was forced to find creative solutions when it lost access to cheap oil in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet union. The Cuban economy fast-tracked to a largely organic agriculture over a few short years and today is one of the world's leading organic producers.
Here's an excerpt from the film, "How Cuba Survived Peak Oil", which shows how they did the conversion to a low-oil organic agriculture which feeds everyone.
Many other countries are also seeing the benefits of converting to organic, both for their farming communities and in their income from exports.
You can now buy organic Brazil nuts cultivated under the tropical forest canopy; or, like the Incas of old, you can eat organic quinoa from South America; you can drink delicious organic teas and coffees from around the world and, in many places, you can eat excellent organic foodproducts from local farms.
As more people realize the benefits of organic foods it becomes more accessible and some of it is even getting a little cheaper.
There are also farmers who practice a good many of the methods of organic cultivation without actually being fully organic. This is another good reason to eat mainly local foods. It is possible to find many good quality foods locally which are not certified organic but which are grown with conservation in mind.
If we eat mainly organic food we can be certain that we are contributing to the welfare and preservation of our wildlife and we get nutritious food brimming with vitamins and minerals for ourselves and our children.
Permaculture - short for permanent agriculture - is a newish version of organic farming which takes it to a new level.
The principles of permaculture include intelligent design to minimise work and to minimise negative effects upon the wider environment. Permanent, high-yielding agriculture should enable us to live more lightly on the earth, leaving more room for other species and natural wilderness, to the benefit of all.
Permaculture also focuses on a re-localisation of agriculture which also chimes well with Transitition initiatives to lower our use of natural resources and our dependency upon oil.
There are some incredible permaculture initiatives springing up and I think it's going to be one of the great positive movements for change in the 21st century.
Please see the links page for more info on Permaculture and Transition Towns.
Here are a few good books on cheap food, starting with a couple of recipe books.More-With-Less Cookbook (World Community Cookbook)
Here's a book which deals in the realities of a world where food supplies are limited and resources are stretched. Doris Janzen Longacre draws upon Mennonite cooking lore to help us to consume less but also live more healthily. All the recipes are tested by professional cooks.
Cheap. Fast. Good! Here's a cheap and easy recipe book with plenty to please family members. How good and how cheap the end product is depends upon just what you select, but most cooks will find something to inspire them. You can certainly use this book for cooking with organic ingredients - which very often produce the most delicious results.
Tough Choices: Facing The Challenge Of Food Scarcity (The Worldwatch Environmental Alert Series) by Lester R Brown "The thesis of this book is that food scarcity will be the defining issue of the new era now unfolding..." This is from the author of "Plan B 3.0" which is a blueprint for how to save the world from food shortages and population growth. Highly rated by academics and Bill Clinton, these books address long-term issues of production and scarcity.
The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener (A Gardener's Supply Book) Here's a good over-all guide to organic growing techniques for those of us who want to learn the skills which will see us through the decline of cheap oil and the fertilisers which standard agriculture depend upon. Time to upskill!
Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture Lots of useful info for gardeners "who want to work with Mother Nature rather than against her". This is an invaluable source book of practical permaculture ideas.