Magazine article The Spectator

Good Taste

Magazine article The Spectator

Good Taste

Article excerpt

ALMOST every Sunday, if I can, I walk into the centre of the town where we live, and shop at the Farmers' Market. There I find stalls piled with - depending on the season - slightly muddy greens and potatoes, pumpkins, beetroot, apples from local orchards, eggs, and various kinds of meat. Almost all of this produce is labelled 'organic', and I return laden with plastic bags full of it. Why?

The question is worth asking because I know, or am quite prepared to accept, that from a scientific point of view 'organic' farming is a load of old hooey - or, at least, a highly dubious proposition. All the hard-headed arguments are against it. Writing in the magazine Prospect, Dick Taverne, the Liberal Democrat peer, concluded that `organic farming ... has no foundation in science or logic. It is based on mysticism, a vague philosophy about nature and has some of the characteristics of a cult.' Oliver Walston has written in a similar vein in the Daily Telegraph, also convincingly.

The inspiration of the organic movement, the German thinker Rudolf Steiner, Taverne points out, also advocated planting according to the phases of the moon, and the enrichment of the soil with cows' horns stuffed with entrails. His heirs have moved on, but still the basis seems rooted in a quasi-religious feeling about the evil of technology in the form of agribusiness and the goodness of nature.

Consequently, when I am told - as 1 was recently by the wife of an eminent sculptor - that non-organic carrots (one can scarcely call them 'inorganic') are filled with toxic chemicals derived from insecticides and fertilisers, I don't really believe it. And when at a dinner party the woman to my left informed me that organic farming was one of those quiet, slow movements that revolutionise the world, I snorted and spoilt the atmosphere. And yet still I buy the stuff.

The reason is obvious: it is likely to taste better. Quite a lot of people know this already. A survey by Health Which? discovered that 68 per cent of consumers buying organic food did so because they thought it had more flavour (as against 83 per cent who are nervous of pesticides and 75 per cent who want to be kinder to the environment). Taverne is impatient with this point. Homegrown organic produce is fresher, he argues, because it has a shorter shelf-life, and fresher food tastes better; it is nothing to do with whether or not it is organic. But, of course, the fact that it is fresher and tastes better is a strong reason for buying it, irrespective of whether one believes a lot of mumbo-jumbo distantly descended from German romanticism.

And there is more to it than that. Agribusiness, or the industrialisation of agriculture, may or may not be damaging the environment and poisoning us all, but there is little doubt that it has had a detrimental effect on one of the key aspects of food: the way it responds after entering the mouth.

My grandmother used quite often to muse at mealtimes that either her taste buds had lost their vigour with the onset of old age, or modern food was lacking in savour. At the time, I used privately to suspect the former. On reflection, however, it is plain that the latter must have been the explanation for her experience. Anyone who - as she did - began their eating career in the 1890s would have noticed during their lifetime a catastrophic decline in the flavour of food. …

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