Last month I attended the launch of the government’s Ecosystem Markets Task Force report Realising Nature’s Value. The Task Force comprised an impressive range of mainly business leaders, including representatives of Unilever, Jaguar Land Rover amongst others, and was chaired by Ian Cheshire of Kingfisher plc.
The report was based on the proposition that we need to harness the power of the market to drive a shift to more sustainable and green practices in business, enabling people to make positive purchasing decisions for products that deliver environmental benefits. Given my involvement with the development of the organic market, this was familiar territory to me, so I went to the initial gathering about a year ago and have kept abreast of its progress via Kim Buckland, co-founder of Liz Earle’s skin care range, and a member of the Task Force.
Immediately prior to the event, I was interviewed for a video to be screened at the launch. I spoke about my interest in installing an anaerobic digestion unit on our farm, to generate electricity or heat hot water with the methane emissions from our slurry. The Task Force wanted my views on this because the installation of anaerobic digestion units was one of the priorities for action detailed in the report. I suggested that all that was needed to make it viable, was a grant towards the capital costs!
Somewhat to my surprise, the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson (despite not having met me), made reference to my video contribution in his opening remarks. I took advantage of this during the questions, and asked if he thought that penalising farming practises that harm the environment was a good idea? Could it complement policy measures and, in tandem with the market incentives, more strongly drive the change towards sustainability?
From my experience, as someone who helped draft the early organic standards more than thirty years ago and with precisely the same objectives in mind as that of the Task Force, I was in a good position to testify that it was too tough an ask to expect the market place alone to deliver the changes we need to generate more sustainable farming practices, unless such incentives were coupled with policies designed to encourage the same outcomes.
I got a bland, although generally positive response, from Paterson. What he didn’t say, was that if the government were to commit to such measures, it would cost money. It would have to play well with the electorate, or at least better, which it doesn’t at present, as has been well evidenced by David Cameron’s deafening silence on organic and sustainable food.
My view on this is that the fault is each of ours – we have failed to understand that it’s in our enlightened self-interest to pay a little more for our food in order that our health and the health of our planet is improved and the likelihood of climate change is reduced. Because of our failure to change our buying behaviours, commit to sustainable environmental practice and influence the hearts and minds of our family and friends, majority public opinion will continue to see buying organic as elitist, sustainable food production as a pipe dream and initiatives which use taxes for the greening of farming as something we won’t vote for. Most of us will continue to opt for cheap food.
So although it was really excellent to be at an event where the corporate world and government are both looking to the marketplace as an important means of developing more environmentally friendly farming and other sustainable practices, I know that on its own, it simply won’t work well enough to deliver real change.
I know from my long involvement with the organic movement, that willingness to pay significantly more for anything, be it energy or food, is umbilically linked to understanding why one would want to do that—the present disconnect is evidenced by the impact of the recession on organic food sales. My estimate is that both the amount of land dedicated to organic production and retail sales for organic produce have now declined by around 35% since the peak in 2007/8. The sustainable food movement has not done enough to make politicians feel the heat and the economic slow down highlights how much organic production is seen as an add-on rather than necessity.
President Obama was recently asked why he hadn’t done more to support the food movement, his response was, “Show me the movement!” For those of us invested in sustainable food systems, that is now our task. We have to mobilise public opinion. Just because we haven’t got there yet, absolutely doesn’t mean we won’t get there in the future. We need to continue to argue tirelessly for food with a better story.
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