I want to take you on a journey east, into Europe, parting the tulip fields of Holland, via the Bundesbank of Germany, around the Masurian lakes of Poland and through the plains of Belarus, which serve as the European gateway to the world’s largest country. Almost 50% bigger than it’s nearest contender, it spans nine time zones, comprising both bustling cities and desolate isolation, extreme weather and lush farmland. It is the birthplace of the great author Fyodr Dostoevsky and home to the Kremlin, the chair of Vladimir Putin.
Now, Russia may seem an unlikely place to start talking about organic food, due to it’s infamy for vodka, potatoes and caviar. But this gargantuan state holds an interesting position which sets it apart from much of the developed world, and makes it a good place to start this piece.
But first, I want to talk about genetically modified (GM) food, which stands as the antithesis of organic food and never the twain shall meet. Organic production expressly bans the use of GM products in it’s systems.
In Europe, and therefore the UK, there is an EU ban on growing GM food for commercial use. This wasn’t always the case, in the UK during the mid 1990s, GM tomato products went on sale with minimal fanfare. At first.
This ripple cast a wave which grew into into social outrage and drew Frankenstein-esque parallels in the media. This public outcry resulted in the EU quickly placing a temporary ban on GM crops, which then developed into a blanket ban on the commercial growth or sale of GM crops. The exception is animal feed; farmers are allowed to feed their stock with GM produce, often soya sourced from South America – unless the animals are organic, in which case the use of GM feed is banned.
Conversely, in America, GM has been embraced and widely used ever since, with vast quantities of GM food produced for human consumption. A few companies have taken a stand, such as Chipotle, the first US company to declare their GM ingredients, then in 2015, ousted all GM foods from their product line.
The arguments for and against GM and organic are fractious, diverse, and very hard to reconcile, far too broad to cover in a little blog post like this. However, a word of caution if you continue to read about it.
GM crops are developed by large, multinational corporations with vast budgets for marketing and research. These resources mean they are able to fund and produce a lot of compelling evidence supporting the benefits and safety of their products. The quantity of studies which they can produce is beyond the means of any other food production system. There are even allegations that Monsanto had ghostwritten reports which were then attributed to academic studies. The overwhelming resources of these corporations can make the pro-GM evidence appear conclusive, however, there is no agreement and it’s worth remembering the David and Goliath nature of the divide.
Let’s get back on track. Russia.
In 2015, Vladimir Putin spoke openly in opposition to GM and stated that Russia will become the world’s largest supplier of organic produce. In July 2016, the Russian State Duma finalised a bill banning the use of GM in plant or animal growth which was signed into law by Putin.
The reason this is significant is that Russia is the foremost country in the world that is extolling organic produce on a international, national and state level. They are also instigating an (allegedly) independent piece of research called Factor GMO, looking at the long term effects of GM crops, a study which will prove to be the largest of it’s kind in the world.
Russia’s insistence on organic produce appears to be founded on a deep mistrust of GM products. This is perfectly reasonable, because nobody has a definitive answer over their long term impact, they are a relatively youthful addition to our world history. Russian agricultural minister Nikolai Fyodorov went as far as to say they will not “poison our citizens” by utilising GM technology.
Organic production respects natures systems, which makes the Russian situation fascinating, as it sits in stark opposition to the proliferation of GM agriculture in the United States. Organic systems are a way of producing food that is considerate to the natural environment, rather than bulldozing it to create the largest field of single crops possible. This practice, known as monocropping, is a common feature of large scale GM agriculture and can have negative impacts on the soil and the environment.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) states the need to “maintain or improve” our natural resources. Organic production fits this bill as it uses a wider range of crops and their inherent properties to promote and protect the biodiversity of the land. This diversity is beneficial for everyone, as our environment thrives on biodiversity and when our food comes from diverse products, it’s proven to be a healthier, more nutritionally complete diet.
Benefits such as these are not quick fixes, they are long term investments in the world we live in, both for the land and for ourselves.
UK food regulations are predominantly set by the EU, who consider and research these positions in depth before making judgements. With Brexit, the UK must re-write these rules, along with the opportunity for them to be modified to suit any political or industrial pressures. This means that our ban on GM food could be modified or lifted with the advent of Brexit. Personally, I stand in opposition to this.
I feel that everyone has a responsibility to understand the fundamental facts around GM, organic and everything in between, so they can make informed choices. The food on our shelves will change over the coming years and as we all know, you are what you eat, quite literally. It’s only with an awareness and knowledge of how that food gets there, that we have a chance of protecting the integrity of our food and ultimately, our own health.
Learn More, More, More.
Every year there’s a free event where you can learn more, when people who are passionate about organic food hit the streets and hand out free samples of delectable organic products. It’s organised by the Organic Trade Board and called ‘Wake Up To Organic’, an opportunity for shops around the country get braced with piles of organic food for the passing public to sample.
I was at Oliver’s Wholefoods in Kew for the event this year, where I had a chance to try a plethora of fabulous products from a vast range of organic brands and meet a load of people who care sincerely about how the food we eat is produced. It’s a great opportunity to meet people, try some very tasty food and learn more about organic food.
Get Your Diary Out.
Next year’s event is on 13th June 2018, so make a note in your diary, visit www.wakeuptoorganic.co.uk to find your nearest participating store, then drop by to pick up an organic snack on the way to work, or ask some questions about why organic is something that’s worth caring about.