Tuesday, 24 September 2013

To bio or not to bio

My excuse is that the French pronounce it "bee-oh".

A beautiful Sunday morning with the first sunny-but-crisp overtones of Autumn, so we popped down the road to Marie's restaurant for a coffee and to enjoy the walk in the cool sun.  Whilst there, we spotted a flyer for a food fair in Le Mans, and were sold on it by Marie who had been there herself and thought it was great.  Off we went.

It was held in the beautiful Abbé de L'Epau, a converted monastery, and featured food tastings and cooking demonstrations, mostly of local produce.  There were cheeses, fresh veg, spices, vegetable carvings, cold pressed nut oils of various kinds, meat products and most things that you would expect at a food fair.

But what struck me was that almost all of it was "bio", that is, French for "organic".  I am in two minds about this trend.  I believe that, as first expressed in Gulliver"s Travels,  "whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."   And it seems to me that much of the result of organic farming is that one ear of corn is now growing where two used to grow.  And the result is correspondingly more expensive.

Now don't get me wrong, I appreciate quality where I can discern it.  I appreciate commercial competition and customer choice.  If an organic product is better than its non-organic counterpart in some way that I can perceive (or measure, in the case of pesticides), and is worth the price difference to me, then I'm all for it.

But I do also come across an awful lot of BS in food production and promotion.  I'm aware that blind wine tastings generally favour cheaper wines, for example, and fashion and scarcity are also important factors in perceived value or quality of food.   In many cases I have yet to be convinced of any inherent virtue in the final product, no matter what the spiel is on the packaging, or what organic processes I am told were involved in its production.  So call me a philistine.

But I wonder if there's not also a moral element here.  It is all very well, from the position of a full wallet and full stomach, to contemplate consuming expensive low-yield products, but if all the world's food was grown this way, there would be many more starving people than there are already.  On the other hand, if all cars were Ferraris, not many people would drive either.  There is a place in the market for high end in pretty much everything.

So organic food gets a very qualified "maybe" from me.  I wouldn't go so far as to say I avoid it, but I can't think of any product that I insist on being organic because I think it's better.

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