In South Shields MP David Miliband's dismissal of organic food as a"lifestyle choice" is he really missing the point about organic farming?
The Sunday Times covered Mr M's interview in South Shields fish and chip shop Colman's, which apparently uses "wild fish from sustainable fishing grounds". He was quoted as saying that for organic food, in health terms "there isn’t any evidence either way that’s conclusive." That doesn't mean there's no positive health benefit, just that there hasn't been enough research in this area. It would take a brave government to fund such research. It would no doubt cause consternation to the agri-chemical industry and giant farming concerns who do well out of unsustainable farming practices. There's no worry for them though, as Mr Miliband's DEFRA has been cutting it's agricultural research budget.
However, considering the regular discoveries of pesticide residues on supermarket fruit and veg, his claim is reminiscent of views held by climate change deniers poo-pooing man's effect on the environment and tobacco companies rubbishing the links between smoking and cancer. Or indeed those who denied the links between BSE and CJD.
His comments paint environmental issues as a consumer choice. This is only partly right. Many people view choosing organic as a serious concern and an obligation to ensure safety for farmers and themselves by mostly eliminating the chemical element in their food, and try to instill some kind of respect for the livestock which provides them with their meat and dairy products.
The alternative to organic, the current "conventional" is a food industry which has brought us salmonella, BSE and foot and mouth. The same industry is also responsible for the pollution of water supplies, the destruction of farmland biodiversity, the regular poisoning of farmworkers and the 'blooms' of lung diseases at spraying time.
The cynic in me asks, could it simply be an attempt by Mr M to target his response to the Time's traditionally environmentally sceptic audience? Possibly; every ministerial statement is carefully judged for effect and he would have known his opinion on organic farming would be closely scrutinised, at least by green groups, hence the essentially ambiguous phrasing. He could always fall back on his nod to sustainable farming at last year's Royal Show when he asked farmers to develop "one planet farming which minimises the impact on the environment".
There's a certain whiff of irony in Mr Miliband's choice of a 'sustainable fish and chip shop' as a venue for his comments about sustainable farming. Mr Miliband will be speaking at a climate conference this Friday at the Littlehaven Hotel. It will be interesting to see if anyone asks him if he enjoys the organic food on offer.
However, his statement sounds most like the cautious business-friendly noises you would expect from a DTI or Treasury minister rather than an environment minister. Perhaps Mr Miliband's comments could be saying more about positioning for a future ministerial seat in a Brown government than his understanding of organic farming?
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