Taking organic forward

 Last month four prominent Soil Association trustees who recently resigned from the charity accused it of disowning the ‘O’ word. They also warned that the organization had become “controversy-averse”.

At the heart of their criticisms is the implementation to date of the Soil Association’s flagship strategy The Road to 2020, launched in 2011 after a long consultation with organic stakeholders.

The Road to 2020 signalled a clear change in approach. The strategy opens with, and builds on, organic first principles. But it also commits the Soil Association to being part of the wider effort to find ways of feeding a growing population sustainably and healthily. It also pledges to reach out to a much bigger audience, to ensure that its work is as relevant to as many people as possible. And it places food education and community involvement at the heart of what it does.

In my view the Soil Association – and the wider organic movement – needed a change of approach and, specifically, needed to be less adversarial. During the early 2000s the UK organic market grew at a remarkable (and unsustainable) rate, peaking at 50% annual growth. During those years of rapid growth the Soil Association undoubtedly gained political influence and generated lots of media but it also began to isolate itself. It took an almost absolutist view of organic and it could be openly critical of other certification schemes. Not surprisingly the organic industry began to find itself on the outside looking in when it came to some important conversations about food and farming.

When the recession struck in 2007 and spending on organic food fell away quickly (the market lost 22% in value in four years), there were an alarming number of people who seemed to relish the organic industry’s difficulties. So, back in 2011, the Soil Association faced the dual task of rebuilding sales and rebuilding relationships.

There was always the risk that in the early years of implementing the new strategy it would appear ‘soft’ because of its intentionally constructive approach. But “avoiding the ‘O’ word wherever possible”? I’m not sure I see the evidence for that. In fact, last year the Soil Association ran one of its most high profile organic campaigns in years – around the findings of the Newcastle University study – as well as staging a successful Organic September and ending the year with a ‘choose organic this Christmas’ promotion.

Of course, there is much work to do. Organic’s share of total food and drinks sales in the UK stubbornly refuses to move. At 2% it’s significantly below that of other European countries with mature markets (it’s 3.7% in Germany, 3.59% in Sweden and 6.5% in Switzerland). The UK market’s rate of growth is also currently lower than in those countries. But the reasons for this are complex. The organic education process in countries like Germany and Switzerland is further advanced. The philosophical arguments have more often been won, and there is has less antagonism between the organic and conventional communities. As a result there is more institutional support for organic at the national level.

The resigning trustees are right to say there has been a shift in position at the Soil Association (which, for the record, describes itself as ‘the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for health, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use’). I think this shift can fairly be summed-up as ‘it’s not all about organic’. This is best exemplified by the Food for Life initiative, which rewards schools as they progress through bronze, silver and gold Catering Mark levels but doesn’t compel them to be organic to join the scheme. Instead it encourages and nudges them to progressively use – and grow, and learn to cook with – more organic ingredients.

Last week Jamie Oliver congratulated all the caterers and suppliers involved as FFL hit a remarkable million-meals-a-day milestone. Separately, in an appearance on Good Morning Britain, Oliver made a profoundly important comment about children’s health. “If you want to add 11-13 years to your kids’ lives,” he said, “cook them fresh meals made with wholefoods”. And that, pretty much, is the entry-level requirement for Food For Life. It’s a real life-changer.

The Road to 2020 offers a template for a more relevant and progressive organic industry. And with organic sales in the UK growing again there is evidence that, together with the Organic, Naturally Different campaign and the efforts of individual brands and campaigners, it is playing a key part in taking organic forward – and sending a powerful message about the transformative power of good food.

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He has written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.