From vicious to virtuous

Image of Harry Eyres

A while ago I heard a bright, youngish, up-and-coming British politician say that eating organic food was “a lifestyle choice”.

I felt he hadn’t quite got it. Probably for reasons unconnected with that remark, this politician – David Miliband – did not follow the expected upward trajectory; he was beaten in the Labour leadership contest by his younger and apparently more nerdish and less charismatic brother Ed.

I have no idea if Ed shares his brother’s views on the sociology of organic food, though there were signs of a difference when he was a notably committed secretary of state for energy and climate change. Since he became Labour leader he has appeared consensual and unwilling to rock the boat.

What was wrong with David Miliband’s remark? In its apparent relaxedness and inclusivity, it both patronised and misunderstood the motivations of a substantial section of the populace. Eating organic food became tantamount to choosing a Mini rather than an Audi, or holidaying on Corfu in preference to Ibiza. Perhaps it is like that for some people, though I expect that in nearly all cases the motivations for eating organic are more complicated than anything encompassed by the phrase “lifestyle choice”.

What David Miliband didn’t get, and I have the feeling that very few contemporary politicians get, is the extent to which people may be motivated by virtue or altruism – that they might want to make a choice grounded not in a value-free menu of consumerist options but on what is right or good, not just for them, but for the wider world, even the cosmos. When did you last hear a politician talk about the cosmos? Are there any votes out there?

This is not to say that eating organic is necessarily virtuous – if only life were that simple; but it is to talk about depth and complexity of motivation.

A “lifestyle choice” sounds somewhat narcissistic or hedonistic. Surely another possible motivation for eating organic is personal health, the health of the person or more often the family eating the organic food.

We know that non-organic fruit, vegetables and meat are subject to a wide variety of chemical and antibiotic treatments, and that residues of some of those chemicals build up in the human body. You may believe the assurances of government scientists that these residues remain within “safe limits” or you may not – remembering that before the BSE outbreak in the UK government scientists (apart from a few dissenters) thought it was safe for the rendered remains of animal carcases to be fed to herbivores.

Possible motivations for eating organic go beyond personal and family health. Many organic aficionados have as part of their motivation a deep concern for the environment. Such feeling is not in any narrow or short-term sense self-interested. People are not concerned about the decline of corn buntings, tree sparrows and lapwings because they fear they will live less long or healthily as a result of that decline but because they love those creatures and the whole intricately interconnected natural world – the Earth which “in her rich attire”, according to the poet of Book Seven of Paradise Lost, “consummate lovely smiled.” And because they shudder at the prospect of a diminished world, divested of that primordial beauty, the world without birdsong evoked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

I am not a religious adherent to organic food – though we do often buy organic products when we feel they have more integrity and flavour. We also buy more and more food from our local farmers market (all produced within a hundred miles of London), for a variety of reasons. It tends to taste good; it is not necessarily more expensive than supermarket produce; there is a connection with the producer; there is the friendly outdoor social buzz and bustle of the market itself.

Beyond all that, we want to be part of a virtuous circle, not a vicious one. Part of the disillusion of modernity has been the realisation that the great techno-scientific revolution, which seemed so glorious and so new, had sinister externalities, unintended negative side-effects. There is nothing more fundamental to our lives than food, and we want the way we eat to be part of a virtuous, sustainable order. Cattle fed with corn and pumped full of antibiotics, fields sprayed more often than that lamp-post you pass when you walk your dog and addicted to chemical fertilisers, chickens crammed together, unable to graze and peck and dust-bathe, overfished oceans – that is to say the whole panoply of intensive industrial agriculture and fishing – no longer seems to constitute such an order.

What goes for food and agriculture also applies to energy. The increasingly heated debates about energy – whether to continue with nuclear, post-Fukushima, whether renewables can ever provide reliable power – are not just technical or practical. Climate change brings up an inescapably moral dimension to politics – our responsibility to future generations – which cannot just be brushed away by politicians happier with the consumerist language of “lifestyle choice”. We are, however imperfectly, virtue-seeking missiles, and they haven’t cottoned on.

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