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Countryfile takes a 20 year view of organics

Date Published: 07/02/2012

Every now and then the BBC’s popular Countryfile programme revisits the topic of organic food and farming. Of course, such high profile coverage of organics is always to be welcomed and this was a rounded and well-balanced feature.

The trouble is it always feels a bit like they are giving it the ‘organics by numbers’ treatment and, particularly with last Sunday’s piece, there was the nagging feeling that it was all a bit negative, with talk of “dramatic falls” in sales and the suggestion of a loss of momentum in the sector.

What was perhaps most disturbing was the way John Craven’s script felt like a lesson in organics for beginners. It did work, in turn, through the key benefits of organic farming methods and, in a very BBC way, trod carefully with its language to avoid upsetting the non-organic farming world.

But what’s disturbing about this is that it seemed that we haven’t moved very far forward as a sector in making the understanding of the key elements of organic methods a given for the average TV viewer (if there is such a person).

The fact that such central tenets of organic production as welfare, biodiversity and low inputs (and therefore less water course pollution), still have to be spelled out, taking up most of the precious time available in a TV piece, that could otherwise be devoted to deeper and more meaningful discussion of the topic, is a shame.

Of course the Countryfile production team is not to blame for that; we are, as a sector of UK farming. In fact, for a popular, prime-time television programme it was a careful and considered treatment of the subject that clearly pointed out the benefits of and reasons for organic farming. They had no choice but to do that and they did it efficiently.

Interestingly, John Craven pointed out that his first piece for Countryfile was on organic farming, 20 years ago, so we have that milestone in common as Organic Farmers & Growers marks its 20 years this year as the first Government approved organic certifier in the UK.

As was pointed out, in those 20 years the organic market in Britain has grown from sub £100 million per year to around £1.7 billion, which is no mean feat. As recession has hit we have seen something of a stall. However, interestingly, while the amounts of organic food going through supermarkets may be down in the drive to be the multiple boasting of the lowest prices across the board, independent retailers and manufacturers are talking quite clearly of growth; though they are perhaps serving more of a core market of organic shoppers.

On balance though, it was a fair and informed treatment of the subject and the clear benefits of organic methods were pretty openly acknowledged, along with some scientific evidence from the Nafferton Farm-based studies on systems and nutrition being run by Newcastle University.

The item is in two parts in the programme and is well worth a watch (the link below will take you straight to the introduction to the first instalment, while the next is a bit further into the programme). We’d be interested in your thoughts on this 20-year update on the state of the organic nation.

>> BBC Countryfile, February 5, 2012 (available until 8pm, Sunday 12 Feb)