The past few years have seen increasing numbers of food scandals like horsemeat and BSE, as well as the rise, and uncertainty, of genetically modified food. As such, people have become worried about their food. In our schools these people are our parents so for us, the matter couldn’t be more critical.
As such there is now a greater demand for transparency in food sourcing and, for some, the organic label has been seen as a useful solution to the high level of suspicions about ‘regular’ food. People generally see organic food as a trustworthy and ethical option. So it has become more popular and, for some, a price they are prepared to pay.
The absence of pesticides and antibiotics in the production of organic crops and meats satisfies the instinctive fear of ‘chemicals’. The apparent transparency as to the sourcing of organic food makes us more comfortable about buying it. It’s even suggested that this chemical-free production has significant health benefits, and also helps the local ecosystems around organic farms by preventing pesticide accumulation. As well as this, organic meat has to be free-range, meaning that consumers feel animals are cared for and treated more responsibly. These are all obviously the strengths of organic goods, and also result in some of the reasoning for higher pricing.
But abstaining from the chemicals used throughout industrialised food production does have drawbacks as well. Organic farms are estimated to be 25% less efficient than alternatives by the Nature science journal. This is put down to the crops being more susceptible to pests and disease, as well as having a significantly decreased shelf-life. This inefficiency is puzzlingly opposed to the claims that organic is more sustainable, and opens up the concept to greater ethical ambiguity than originally supposed. In addition, the perceived health benefits are being increasingly questioned in scientific literature. The UK Food Standards Agency and its French and Swedish counterparts claim that these benefits are negligible and hugely exaggerated by mainstream media.
The environmental benefits by organic farming, however, are generally agreed upon. It is undeniable that we need to find a safer way to protect our crops from pests than pesticides. Reports of decreased biodiversity in industrial farming regions are prolific and further raising concerns amongst our parents. I can see why this is seen as the core benefit to organic: although potentially perceived as inefficient, it is seen as the answer to farming in an increasingly vulnerable ecosystem, and to protect biodiversity.
So it has become increasingly important for the community we feed to know where our school food comes from. There are several ways to achieve this. In Brookwood, we became the first schools’ caterer to achieve the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s top level 3-star Food Made Good Award. We liked this because it confirmed our food’s credentials by independent review and a top graded ‘kite’ mark. It also removes the accusation of the ‘smoke and mirrors’ labelling that has been levelled at one supermarket recently.
There are also other accreditations such as The Soil Association’s Food For Life, which we have also worked with a number of our schools to achieve. One school has gold level which required a significant transfer to organic produce.
However, cost is a major factor in most schools. A snapshot of food prices I viewed showed a range from 50% more to double the price. We have also found the quantities we require harder to source and organic fresh produce deteriorates more quickly causing greater waste. Never the less, buying organic produce does give some people peace of mind. So for many, the organic question is really one of ‘pay your money and make your choice’. However, add to this the factor that some organic supply may also be air freighted and, another conversation starts. More confusingly, genetically modified crops, called Frankenstein food in some sectors of the more colourful press, may reduce the use of pesticides. I don’t see a straightforward answer becoming clear any time soon.
Sue Parfett is Managing Partner of independent schools’ caterer, The Brookwood Partnership