This is a tale of two pigs. The first – let’s call him Soren – is reared in Denmark. For the first few months of his life, he lives a cramped existence in a barn. This pink, flabby creature is castrated so that his meat won’t taste too strong. When at last he is allowed outside, his only freedom is a small concrete run. At a young age, he is killed and turned into bacon, using potassium nitrate and sodium nitrite. When you put slices of him in a pan, white watery liquid runs out.

The second – let’s call him Juan – was lucky enough to be born in the Iberian peninsula. He is sleek, black and hairless, a descendant of the original wild boar. Juan spends his life munching acorns among the oak trees. By the standards of animals destined for pork, he is allowed to live a long, calm life. He is only killed when he is 20 months, oldish for a pig, after which time his flesh is cured in sea salt until his fat turns to oleic acid, a fatty acid similar to that in olive oil. Juan is now jamón ibérico de bellota. When you eat slices of him, the salty flesh melts in your mouth.

It should be perfectly obvious which pig has led a better life and makes for better food. But there is one further crucial difference between the two. Because he has had only organic feed and has not suffered the worst indignities of factory farmed pigs – overcrowding and no access to outdoor space – Soren the Danish pig ends his life in a British supermarket labelled “organic”. Whereas Juan, for technical reasons, doesn’t qualify for the organic label.

“Organic” has become a word in which we have invested many contradictory dreams about food. Organic food sales in Britain are now worth more than £2bn a year. “Organic” is a magic charm, to protect us against the squalor, the chemicals and industrial scale on which most of what we eat is produced. Like any magic charm, it can’t possibly do all we expect of it. As Lynda Brown, author of The New Shopper’s Guide to Organic Food (2002) tells me: “Consumers view organic food as a haven. But organic food standards have never been perfect and probably never will be perfect because life isn’t perfect.”

But what does it really mean for food to be “organic”? For the Soil Association, the leading certifier of organic food in the UK, organic food exemplifies such lofty principles as “nurture, not exploitation” and “positive health, not hygiene”. For the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), the political institution that regulates organics in the UK, it means, more prosaically, “food grown without the use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides and in a way that emphasises crop rotation, making the most of natural fertilisers and ensuring that the life of the soil is maintained”. Legally, organic food in this country means food produced in accordance with the standards of European Union regulation 2092-91.

For organic standards are quite a recent development. The first basic standards were set up by the Soil Association in 1967 but it was not until 1991 that the EU – and hence, Britain – adopted its first organic food regulation. In EU law, organic food is the product of a certain kind of farming – one that involves no harmful pesticides, fertilisers or genetic modification. EU law also requires certain basic standards of animal husbandry – such as “regular exercise”, “appropriate density” of stock and a ban on growth hormones – to be applied to animals destined to become “organic” meat. Through Defra, the UK modifies the basic EU rules on various points, notably raising the standards for animal husbandry – though not high enough for those following Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s current “Chicken out!” campaign. To take one example, meat raised in the UK only counts as “organic” if the animals were born into an organic system, whereas in the rest of the EU, “organic” meat may come from intensively reared baby animals. Getting lost? Just wait. Above and beyond the basic requirements – which are complex enough – the standards for organic food vary wildly. One Soil Association standards setter tells me that the inconsistency of organic standards “is confusing for consumers and it’s even confusing for us who are setting the standards”.

Part of the muddle about organic standards is that there are just so many of them. In Britain, there are no fewer than nine different certification bodies for organic food, each of which sets its own criteria and provides its own inspectors (though they are policed by Defra to ensure they comply with EU rules).

At one end of the scale, you have Demeter, a biodynamic certifying body whose logo is a guarantee that food has been produced not just without any nasty chemicals but in accordance with the lunar cycle, following the principles of Rudolf Steiner (which include homeopathic medicine for animals and weird “preparations” made by stirring organic manure in precise configurations). At the other end of the scale are commercial certification bodies whose standards do not go much beyond the basic requirements and whose core values do not seem much different from those of the supermarkets.

There is, therefore, huge potential for disappointment. When you buy an organic egg you are not just buying the means to make an omelette, you are buying a dream. It is the dream of something delicious, which will simultaneously be good for your body and good for the hens and people who produced and packed it. It is the dream of being self-indulgent and virtuous at the same time – which essentially encapsulates the main yearning of our consumerist world. As Lynda Brown says: “Everybody wants an organic egg to come from a chicken that has led an idyllic life. But most people don’t actually want to pay for it.” The result is that when you look behind the dreamy label of much organic food – as with Soren the pig – you find it is not so very different from the industrial, compromised food you were trying to buy your way out of. The yolk is still pallid. The workers are still underpaid. The hens are still crowded – just a bit less than for conventionally farmed eggs.

Enter the Soil Association. Around 70 per cent of organic food sold in Britain bears the SA logo. The food with this label is likely to be at least a bit closer to our dreams, particularly for animal husbandry. Soren the pig would not qualify for an SA logo. Under SA rules, chickens and pigs have to be truly free-range and not too densely stocked. SA pigs may not be castrated or nose-ringed (both practices permitted under the baseline standards).

Founded in 1946 by Lady Eve Balfour, the Soil Association, a Bristol-based charity, has always seen organic food in broad holistic terms. Balfour was a farmer and an indomitable Englishwoman of a certain type. In 1939, as Britain went to war, she began conducting her own battle against farming practices. She experimented by farming two pieces of land side by side, one with conventional chemicals, and one drawing on the soil’s natural fertility. The results were recorded in her 1943 book The Living Soil. For Balfour, organic food was never just about a mere absence of poisonous chemicals. It was about looking “at the living world from a new perspective”; it was about what she called “wholeness”.

The SA logo was first registered as a trademark in the 1970s – the first product accredited was Aspall organic vinegar – and the association has since then observed a clear division of power between the commercial certifying wing, which applies the standards, and the charity, which devises them. This is still the case now. I speak to Ken Hayes, an earnest young scientist in the standards department, who used to work in a GM lab researching pollination and has the messianic zeal of a convert to the SA’s way of thinking. The SA’s standards team do not have to muddy their hands with commerce. This frees them to conceive of organic standards in the purest terms. Unlike EU standards which are amended painfully slowly, SA standards are reviewed every year.

“We are working, above all, with consumer expectations,” says Hayes. “If you present people with an organic product not produced to certain basic ethical standards, they’d be disappointed.” When people buy organic food – as more than one in three of us now do on a regular basis – they expect it to come with a range of social and health benefits. Hayes sees part of his role in setting standards as being “to campaign and inform” about the ideal conditions in which food should be produced.

In the US, food campaigners are constantly fighting to stop the organic standards set by the Department of Agriculture from being watered down. The USDA allows many more nonorganic ingredients to be used in “organic” food than are permissible in the UK. Last year, there was outrage when the USDA certified Anheuser-Busch’s Wild Hop Lager, which included hops sprayed with pesticides and grown with chemical fertilisers, as an “organic” beer. In Britain, however, there is the opposite danger. Instead of being watered down, organic standards are beefed up, to the point where “organic” comes to stand for everything that is virtuous in food. For the SA, “organic” is a term that also embraces local food and fair trade.

To the SA’s competitors, these standards can seem unfair. Richard Jacobs, chief executive of the Organic Farmers & Growers, the second biggest certifier after the SA, and with less all-encompassing standards, worries that, as standards in Britain diverge from those in Europe, “you end up with a very unlevel playing field”. Jacobs would like to see an achievable organic standard “applied universally across the whole of Europe”.

Of course, one wouldn’t expect rival certificating bodies to agree with each others’ standards. More surprisingly, however, many of those who share the SA’s original beliefs feel uneasy with the idea that “organic” standards should also encompass local food and fair trade. Lynda Brown, a stalwart of the organic movement, says she sees “Fairtrade”, “organic” and “local” food as “very strong symbols” that do not start from the same positions: just because it is “local” does not mean that food is not sprayed with harmful pesticides.

Ken Hayes at the SA, though, says: “I would say that these things – Fairtrade and organic food and carbon reduction – are inseparable.” For Hayes, there is no contradiction in combining organic and ethical standards because they were never separate in the first place. “It all goes back,” he says, “to the four basic principles of the green movement: ecology, care, health and fairness. What that fairness means is that there should be no distinction between organic and ethical trade standards.”

Back on the supermarket shelves, though, organic food is still fraught with disappointment and weird anomalies. Take soy milk. In the Tesco longlife milk aisle, you can choose between: first, Tesco Calcium Enriched Soya Drink (at 63p a litre), your basic average soy milk; second, Tesco Organic Unsweetened Soya Drink (at 99p a litre), a premium-looking product with a price tag to match; and third, Tesco Value Unsweetened Soya Drink (60p a litre) with its no-frills packaging. Yet if you look at the small print, you will see that the Value soy milk is organic too. In other words, you are being offered a choice between spending 60p on organic soy milk that doesn’t appear to be organic or 39p more for the organic soy milk that loudly trumpets the fact. By paying that 39p, you are effectively admitting that organic food is simply an idea to you. It is an idea that says wealth and health (whereas “Value” is an idea that says poverty). This is the reductio ad absurdum of “organic” as a brand.

So we have organic food that isn’t labelled as such. And then we have almost-organic food, which doesn’t quite qualify for the label, but that may, nevertheless, be more carefully produced food – closer to our dreams – than much of what Michael Pollan, the American author of the bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, calls the “big organic” food sold in supermarkets. This is the problem of Juan the Iberian pig. It is also the problem of countless small cheesemakers and vegetable growers, who eschew harmful chemicals but cannot afford the cost of accrediting their food as organic.

This question of almost-organic food “is really difficult”, says Lynda Brown. Despite her status as a queen of organic shopping, Brown is not as dogmatic about labels as others in the organic movement (I once met an organic campaigner who said she had to lie down if she ate so much as a bite of Marmite, the only non-organic food she ever allowed herself). Brown buys her vegetables – those that she hasn’t grown herself – from farmers “who are not organic but don’t use pesticides”. She arrives at the farmers market armed with a list of questions. “I need to know if it is produced in an environmentally and animal-friendly way, which pesticides have been used and how much. I take food on a case by case basis. If you buy from the producers themselves, you can look them in the eye and make a judgement. In effect, you are policing your own food supply, setting your own standards.”

What about the rest of us, I ask? What about people who don’t have Brown’s admirable knowledge and tenacity but push our trolleys through the supermarkets bemusedly trying to choose something blameless to eat for supper? Brown hesitates. “Well, in that case, you can put your faith in organic.” Whatever that might mean.

Bee Wilson is the author of ‘Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats’ (£14.99) to be published by John Murray on January 24. The book is available at £11.99 plus P&P from the FT ordering service, tel: +44 0870-429 5884 or go to www.ft.com/bookshop

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