Setting a course for the future of organic

Over the past few months the Soil Association’s new director, Helen Browning, has been consulting widely on how best to take both the organisation and the wider organic movement forward (see story).

The first of these is to “ensure that organic, great quality food is accessible to everyone, not just a privileged few”. It’s natural that this should be the organic movement’s foundation aim. If you share the conviction that organic offers a healthier, sustainable and ethical way forward for food and farming, you’ll want to see the maximum number of people (and habitats and animals) benefit.

But the organic sector has struggled to shake off claims that it has become “elitist”. Despite being able to quote quote data showing that 30% of organic sales are made by lower income consumers, the image has stuck. And the fact is, that this image problem is partly of the organic industry’s own making (the result of organic’s alignment with premium and luxury values). It’s good to hear that the Soil Association will address this constructively by building on the success of its ground-breaking Food for Life scheme.

Addressing concerns about the sometimes adversarial nature of organic’s relations with policy makers and the conventional farming community (latterly the media too), Browning wants to see a more “constructive relationship” built. Instead of of presenting organic as a panacea the strategy will be “to show how much organic has to offer”.

There will be efforts made to prevent organic being characterised as a ‘nostalgia industry’. More emphasis will be made of the fact that organic actively embraces and utilises appropriate new science, while continuing to stress the value of traditional knowledge. In this spirit organic husbandry will be presented as an ‘emerging technology’ — rather than “as just harking back to days gone by”.

The Soil Association is also sending a clear signal to practitioners — “the people who make it happen” — that it will work more closely with them to ensure that its advocacy is based on an understanding of practical realities.

That really must be a key commitment from the organic sector’s lead organisation. Being an experienced practitioner herself — organic farmer and brand owner — Helen Browning understands these practical realities very well. And that bodes well for the future.

On which note, let’s all wish each other Happy Organic September!