Rich pickings

Like antique furniture, organic foods have become a status symbol for the well-off.

Dave Hallsworth

Topics Science & Tech

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Posh people always want to be special themselves, and to surround themselves with special things. Articles that broadcast that ownership mean that the owners are very rich and have exceptionally good taste.

As Thomas R DeGregori explains in his excellent The Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate, expensive antique furniture was expensive because it was made laboriously by skilled artisans for rich patrons who could afford the best of available materials. Consequently, such antiques are in short supply today and affordable only by the very wealthy. For rich patrons, artists also created statues, paintings and ornaments. By displaying these, owners could show everyone how rich and powerful they were (1).

With the techniques brought about by the Industrial Revolution, we can all afford furniture that is superior in utility and beauty to anything produced by those artisans. Because today, we can produce exact copies for a hundredth of the auction price of antiques. What is true for furniture is true for all other man-made goods. But because of antiques’ exclusiveness, there will always be a big demand for them. Often they are seen as a form of investment; always as a demonstration of the wealth of the possessor.

Snobbery has always played a big part in the households of the well-to-do. What a blow for them now – when what used to be for the exclusive use of the rich is available to everybody. World-class wines at £5 a bottle, extra virgin olive oils for the price a pint used to cost, cheeses and fruit from all over the world. Globalisation stands accused of bringing foods that were formerly imported at great cost, beyond the reach of most people, to supermarkets at prices we are well able to afford.

Counter to this, there is the idea that there is something intrinsically better in the old, which is represented by its high cost. Everything else is seen as an inferior copy of superior articles, no matter how demonstrable it is that the new products are better value.

When my wife and I were on holiday at a boarding house in Cape Town in 1999, breakfast was shared around a large table. One of our fellow boarders was a member of an African non-governmental organisation, from one of those states that the former colonial powers decided would be cheaper self-run. When our conversation got around to food, the lady said she always missed cooking outside with a stew-pot on an open fire. My wife and I glanced at each other with sheer disbelief.

The legend of antiquity has nowadays even reached our foodstuff. Today our methods of grain and vegetable growing, together with modern animal husbandry, feed hundreds of millions, where before we only managed to feed hundreds of thousands, and then poorly. Yet those looking for new markets have latched on to the delusion that the old ways are best and attached them to the food we eat. New names have been thought up: ‘organic’, ‘biodynamic’, ‘natural’, ‘health foods’, all to create the idea of an ‘earth-friendly’ form as opposed to a man-created form. Earth = Good; Man = Bad. Even though it took man hundreds of thousands of years to create the forebears of today’s crops.

Today mankind has moved a step further, with genetically altered crops, and shortly will move to genetically altered animals. Much of the opposition to GM foods happens despite the fact that they will increasingly allow farmers to produce crops with reduced pesticides, or even no pesticides; and that they may use modern agricultural methods that prevent soil erosion, conserve water and preserve biodiversity in ways that ‘organic’ agriculture cannot (2).

Facing the increasingly obvious fact that crops on ‘organic farms’ are unprotected from all those veracious insects, slugs, snails, mice and so on – and that they are competing with a lot more weed plants than previously experienced – the plants, as natural selection demands, respond. The laws of natural selection make plants hate being eaten. Mankind, as the protector of his crops, is careful to attack everything that challenges their wellbeing, selectively poisoning and discouraging the weeds and insects. Some pretty fierce poisons were used in the past.

GM crops protect the chosen crop by incorporating into the crop chemical substances harmless to humans but lethal to predatory insects. The crop is also protected against certain herbicides that wipe out its competitors but are not taken up by the crop. The crops are safe for humans to eat; they also tend to be cheaper to produce with heavier croppage.

However, there has appeared on the scene a group of people who would throw us all back to the poison and toxin days. The ‘organic’ supporters of the green movement would have us believe that organic vegetables are more nutritious. Making a credit out of having their vegetables unprotected by the farmer, they are walking into a minefield of re-emerging poisons and toxins as the plants react to rodents, birds, insects and micro-organisms.

Why do people believe in such frauds as the ‘organic foods’ racket? Obviously, if we are to go back to the methods of feudal times, without the aids of fertilisers and weed-killers, presumably looking toward ploughing with horses, the process is going to get very labour-intensive, and therefore expensive. The only people that could afford to pay the market price would be the affluent.

Go to the supermarkets, where a new section has appeared labelled ‘Organics’. Never mind that hundreds of thousands of years have gone into developing the foodstuffs of today by the farmers and agriculturalists, and are in consequence far from ‘natural’. Organic vegetables and fruit will always be in short supply because they are so expensive and time-consuming to produce. But as with antique furniture, that, of course, is precisely their attraction.

The most uncomfortable furniture now commands a fantastic price solely because it is in short supply. Grotesque household goods command the same attention. Instead of building solid modern homes the rich spend hundreds of thousands on turning decrepit barns and fallen-down farmsteads and stricken churches into trendy homes. Why do we want to go back to the past?

(1) Thomas DeGregori, The Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate, Iowa State University, 2003

(2) ‘Warning – organic foods contain higher levels of chemicals dangerous to infants’, Alex Avery, AgBioView, 16 March 2003

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Topics Science & Tech


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