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Organic fairness and fraudulent free rangers

Jonathan Schofield interviews Guy Watson about Riverford boxes and organic issues

Written by . Published on August 13th 2010.

Organic fairness and fraudulent free rangers

Guy Watson is a man in search of the right definition.

“Organic is now a legal term, but look on the Soil Association website and the European Union official description runs to 400 pages. That is hardly a soundbite,” he adds wryly.

“The whole organic idea isn’t easy to sell,” he continues, “especially when other well-known ethical food terms such as ‘free range’ have no legal basis at all. When people think of free range hens they thinking the birds are running happily around in the open being fed corn.

“But free range usually means that that they’re one step up from barn hens and are still rarely if ever let out of some big shed where they are packed in by the thousand. They might be able to have a few metres to walk around in but they’re still pumped with drugs to make them mature and produce quicker. It’s still very industrial, very processed. Yet people think ‘free-range’ is the equivalent of organic. They are thus duped into buying birds and eggs produced in very poor conditions a million miles from what they imagine.”

“Indeed”, he adds, “many suppliers are simply fraudulent in terms of claiming they are organic and local.”

Guy Watson runs the organic boxed veg and food supply company Riverford. He saw the light in his South Devon homelands more than twenty years ago, although his original impulse was, he admits, commercial.

There was a growing premium market for organic food - chemical, pesticide and additive free produced under fair trading conditions. Many environmentally aware folk, leftfielders of a middle class persuasion, where “angry and pissed off” at the limited choice they had in supermarkets and elsewhere, where maximizing profits meant a reduction in range and quality.

Riverford have expanded well beyond organic veg of course. Now there’s a range of weekly organic essentials like eggs, milk, meat, juice and cereal, and even wine and chocolate for delivery. Price comparisons meanwhile put their veg boxes at around 20% cheaper than supermarkets and delivery is free.

But, I ask, Watson, isn’t there still a class and ideological divide between those who want organic, burn for it passionately, and those who, to be frank, can’t be arsed and think it something for those with too much time on their hands?

“There is that divide and it’s very frustrating,” he says. “Frustrating because organic food delivered in this way is still seen as elitist by many people, for people with the money and the time to care – a sort of rich indulgence. But that is exactly what it’s not - in principle. It’s about buying better food that’s better for you, with better flavours and fairer trading relationships. It’s how things should be perhaps rather than how big corporations tell us they should be.”

Fair enough but doesn’t Watson hit another snag here. Some people want their food to taste beautiful, some people see food as a functional commodity and either through laziness, time issues or simply because they don’t care, will continue to eat processed grub and Tesco iceberg lettuces.

“I agree to a certain extent,” Watson says. “But I also think this is what we have to keep emphasizing. That food is one of life’s great experiences. That taste is the thing which matters most, that it’s all about the flavour. Of course some people won’t be bothered but others may learn that bland tasteless supermarket food isn’t the way it needs to be. Of course it would be better if more people knew how to cook.”

What does he mean by that I ask?

“In the past the seasonal change in produce meant you adapted your meals to reflect the food you could obtain, you couldn’t just have broccoli with your Sunday roast every week. One of the barriers to taking our veg boxes is that people have got out of the habit of knowing what to do with turnips for example, and they end up not using all the food. We try and help with demonstrations, cookbooks and events but this may be a long process.”

So with all these issues is the future bright for Watson’s box delivery enterprise?

“I am confident that we have a good business model. It’s worked well in the South and I’m convinced it will work well in the North West - and get better as more and more suppliers provide more and more variety.

“We just have to keep plugging away over organic - campaigning, getting the message over. Maybe getting the definition simplified by Brussels. But always pushing home the idea that if you care about your tastebuds and about a really rich and balanced diet then we are an option. At the same time we’re not conning you like many of the ‘free-rangers’ are, our food is the real organic deal.”

Watson pauses: “In fact I’d say forget the holier-than-thou reputation which certain do-gooding organic toffs have given us and concentrate on the flavours we offer.”

The Riverford Travelling Field Kitchen is at Stockley Farm from 2-5 September and 8-12 September. We'd like you to join us on the opening night but if you can't make it then book in for lunch or dinner on another day by calling 0845 3671155 or 01803 762062. To book your place on the Confidential night at the Riverford Travelling Field Kitchen – Thursday 2 September – click here.

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Leigh ScottAugust 12th 2010.

we all need to get back to having our own chickens and growing our own veg ...simples.

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