The organic backlash starts here

Delia’s on the money. Let’s dump the backward, unproductive organic bullshit and get back to growth and progress.

On daytime TV and down on the farm, the food and agriculture wars are getting interesting again. The extremes are being tested. Rapacious techno-capitalist agrobusiness has been shown to be predatory and short-sighted. Likewise, dreamy organic pastoralism has been shown to be superstitious and narrow-minded. Some kind of consensus may emerge. We need one. How are we going to feed billions under this most fragile curve of blue sky without some kind of agreement?

In the pop media the old school is mounting a quite entertaining backlash. Delia’s in the front-line (she’s channelling others of her era: the galloping gourmet and Fanny Craddock are coming through loud-and-clear). She’s putting into words a decade’s pent-up objections to those smug, wealthy food-bores with their herb gardens and their rare breeds and their bloody Magimixes. We may have seen high water for the foodies and their unbending authenticity. Crack open that tin of pineapple chunks, friend.

And now the Spring’s coming so the action’s moving back to the fields (it’s been a bit nippy for crop vandalism). The anti-GM crowd are pulling on their ‘funny’ bunny suits ready for action and they’ve apparently been perfecting their methods.

Why is it so dispiriting to contemplate the waves of well-meaning greens swarming over fences into the fields again? Shouldn’t we be glad these kids have got the balls and the energy to take on the evil agrobiz and the government? Not really. Because they’re doing all this in the name of that most timid and constipated of social policy inventions: the precautionary principle.

Over-use of the precautionary principle is the mark of a society that doubts its ability to transcend its conditions, make progress, break through. It’s a kind of constitutional paralysis. Boldness, experiment, risk: all out the window. We need to push back, get the foot back on the accelerator. If we don’t, the economies where the only principle at work is the principle of ‘fuck you’ are going to be in charge and then it won’t matter which principle we apply. We’ll be remembered as the crowd of fussy eaters who used to live on that little island in the North Atlantic.

I’d like to see a counter-movement (perhaps wearing ‘funny’ tweedy caps or something), a pro-science, pro-progress group ready to get out into the weedy, under-nourished plots of the organic establishment and start digging up their crops. I’d like to see piles of pointlessly expensive organic veg liberated and dumped on the steps of Number 10 – with some kind of clever PR twist to get it in the papers, obviously. Maybe we could even mount a programme of stealth weed killer application – not a lot, just enough to completely freak out Farmer Giles when he brings in the gang only to find there’s no weeds to weed.


  1. I’d have more time for Delia if she wasn’t the number one reason for all those “herb gardens, rare breeds and bloody Magimixes” existing in the first place. She’s the original aspirational chef.

    And while the anti-GMers may be wrongly motivated, the fact that we need GM crops at all is down to decades (even centuries, but particularly decades) of screwing about with our food supply, selectively breeding crops and animals for yield rather than nutrition, a failing that no amount of not-using-pesticides can correct for – but a return to a more balanced, locally-grown, fruit-and-veg diet is certainly a step int he right direction.

    Or should we side with Delia, and keep feeding the proles on substandard food that makes people obese AND malnourished, an entirely novel state in the history of our species? Her outburst was a book plug (, not a helpful contribution to the debate.

  2. What on earth makes you think there is something wrong with tougher standards for Genetically Modified crops, or, insanely, the idea that organic food (i.e the stuff not drenched in chemicals) is better for you?

    Surely you’re not claiming the precautionary principle will have a measurable effect to the British economy.

    Good grief, what idiot gave you a blog?

    Agriculture makes up barely 2% of this island’s GDP, barely a third of which comes from crops – so I think it best we forget that embarrassingly shortsighted argument.

    I don’t know what congenital brain disorder you (and possibly your extended family) suffer from. An excess consumption of pesticides as a child perhaps? Who knows.

    But criticising the organic food movement’s efforts to make better, chemical free food for us humans, simply because you don’t like them talking about it, is the kind of poe-faced idiot thinking that has kept this glorious island so proudly mired in the past.

    And as for that genius of social awareness, Delia, may I suggest that if we have a population who cannot afford expensive organic food, perhaps we might like to think of ways we can make good food cheap, instead of making shit food prevalent.

    There is a future answer to this problem, but it lies in asking how do we make things better – not in that oderous British tradition of making do with whatever crap we’ve already got.

  3. Excellent points all, Mr. Bowbrick!

    However, you failed to mention the role of the neo-Luddites in this folderol.

    This oversight has been cured by the responses the neo-Luddites have posted. These people truly believe that reverting to Victorian agriculture represents progress.

  4. I agree with Ben that agriculture gets far too much of our attention but the problem is that the precautionary principle is being applied much more widely – across the whole economy, in fact. We don’t have the data right now but let’s say that the ‘PP’ costs the UK economy 0.1 or 0.2% of annual growth. That doesn’t sound like much until you compound it over decades – and especially when the competition is applying no such brake on progress.

    I also agree that there’s nothing *necessarily* backward about organic agriculture. The problem here is that the organic establishment, for reasons of ideology, has locked-in an entirely inflexible set of standards that have become the orthodoxy. Adaptation, hybrid approaches and innovations such as GM are explicitly excluded. That can’t be anything but damaging.

    I’d also like to tackle the ‘po-faced’ thing head on. I really don’t buy it. There’s nothing po-faced about innovation, hybridisation and experiment. On the other hand, have you ever met anyone more po-faced than an organic food bore? Thought not.

  5. Right so, blah blah blah, you don’t like food bores. No one does. That’s why we call them bores.

    So rather than just say that, you blather on about big ideas you have little understanding of trying to say something a little more intellectual than, “I don’t like them”

    Good grief.

    The precautionary principle is simply the idea that we should be reasonably careful about things that might have a significant detrimental effect on human beings, even though we don’t have the science to back it up. But let’s not be simple minded here, we’re talking about organic food. Surely you aren’t suggesting that I have to make an argument that says organic food is good for you.

    If you have an argument against this, I’d love to hear it. Preferably not one that has to make up statistics.

  6. I’ve been blogging for many years and the thing I still find fascinating about it is that people will say things here in a comment that they’d never say to my face. I wonder, Ben, if you’d have made those comments about my ‘extended family’ if we’d been having this discussion in a pub. Anyway, I obviously don’t require you to defend anything, certainly not organic food.

    My point was that the precautionary principle is a philosophical dead weight: a retrogressive, anti-risk, anti-progress device whose long-term effect, especially when compounded over decades, can only be negative.

    Of course, I have no statistics, made up or otherwise. I’d love to see some, though, Ben. From what you’re saying it sounds like you have some expertise. Do you work in this area? Share some of your data with us, please!

  7. Steve – unfortunately, you risk damning a whole swathe of good ideas with this sort of broadside.

    I don’t have much time for overpriced organic food either, but I get an organic box every week because it’s the only way to obtain fresh, seasonal fruit and veg in the city – and because its from a co-operative that runs its own farm and veg plots, it’s cheaper than any of my local shops, organic or otherwise.

    Such schemes, which provide fresh, good food (man, is fresh food tastier than anything from the supermarket) to city-dwellers at lower cost than the food giants, and support the rural economy which is in dire need of it, have only come about because of years of pressure from green beardies. They’re a bit mental, but I salute them.

    Ignore the idiot celebrity chefs, and the braying foodies. It’s not about them and this is not the ‘precautionary principle’ at work. It’s an honest attempt to live better in the modern world, and attempt social fixes rather than cheap technological ones (that always turn into an arms race). Do you really have a problem with that?

  8. Excellent piece, love the final paragraph. There’s nothing like the misguided righteous indignation of the pro-organic brigade when someone lampoons the idea that reverting back to agriculture systems of the past represents progress. I say let them pay over the odds for their food sprayed with shit! It’s just a pity that they fail to recognise their wonderful organic foods requires 3 times the land area to produce the same yield hence is actually worse for the environment. The sweet irony! By the way, if anybody can show me a study which establishes a link between consumption of conventionally produced fruit and vegetables and any negative health consequences then I’ll go and live in the trees, call myself Swampy and spend all my hard earned cash on organics.

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