Why the great and the good are ‘going organic’

Unearthing the origins of the Soil Association's meteoric rise.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

‘What a long way the Soil Association has come’, reflected TV and radio presenter Jonathan Dimbleby from the rostrum of the organic food association’s sixtieth annual conference.

Once the province of baggy-jumpered Greens and old-style farmers, the Soil Association now wins mainstream respect. Sponsors included Thames Water and Sainsbury’s; BBC Radio 4 frontman and former organic farmer John Humphrys chaired the conference’s ‘Question Time’ session, and the audience was peppered with journalists. Speakers included not just Green MEP Caroline Lucas, but Labour London Mayor Ken Livingstone and new Tory leader David Cameron. The conference was set not in some drafty provincial hall, but in the heart of the City of London. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, meanwhile, collaborated with the Soil Association for his high-profile TV campaign last year to improve school dinners.

Dimbleby listed the indices of the association’s rise over the past few decades: from five to 180 staff; from an annual turnover of £200,000 to £8million; providing for an organic market worth £0.5million to £1.3billion. It’s not about hair shirts anymore. The conference had a ‘chillout zone’ where delegates could enjoy massages and facials; and they wined and dined at ‘the world’s first organic cocktail bar’. All this coincides with news that Top Shop is introducing organic items into its new baby clothes line, and that the organic beauty cream Spiezia is being snapped up by celebrities including Renee Zellweger and Des Lynam.

The Soil Association’s rise reflects not its own lobbying efforts, but a changing political culture. We live in times where anything manmade is seen as tainted, dangerous for our health and the environment; natural things tend to be seen as good. Organic products sell because of their ‘natural’ glow. They suggest an awareness of the environment and personal health, a desire to live within the limits of nature.

The growth of organic has been blithely immune to evidence about its pros or cons. Even the Soil Association, back in 2001, admitted that the ‘perception that organic food is “good for you” appears to have been largely based on intuition rather than conclusive evidence’. There is no evidence that the tiny levels of synthetic pesticides in our food present any real threat to human health. Indeed, some academics, such as Anthony Trewavas of Edinburgh University, argue that consumers are potentially more at risk from natural chemicals in organic crops (1).

The speakers were coasting the wave of today’s political sensibility, and so felt little need to justify their position, or engage with alternative arguments. Their views were ‘hard for intelligent people not to share’, opined Dimbleby. Jonathon Porritt, the green author who was appointed by Tony Blair to chair the Sustainable Development Commission in 2000, said that farmers had to ‘wake up and smell the carbon’. There is no alternative, apparently, but to live within their vision of sustainability: ‘Start getting to grips with the new world. This is your new reality’, said Porritt.

The speakers claimed to have the interests of all humanity at heart. Dissenters were cast as selfish, or else too afraid to face reality: ‘There is a lot of denial and a lot of fear’, Porritt told me afterwards. Meanwhile, politicians are apparently greedily counting votes and damning the long-term consequences. ‘Politicians are very blinkered’, said Porritt, ‘they have no peripheral vision’.

Much has changed since the Soil Association’s founding 60 years ago, but one thing has not: its upper-crust appeal. From its founder, the landed Lady Eve Balfour, onwards, the organisation has often found its supporters among the upper-middle classes and landed aristocracy. The association’s conference hall was awash with plummy accents and tweed jackets.

Organic food remains a luxury for those who don’t mind paying extra for a warm glow, to feel that they are ‘aware’ and ‘making a difference’. When money is no object, you can look down on the attempt to produce more, faster, cheaper as crude and uncouth. Romantic visions of harmony with nature are a dalliance, more than a practical reality. Prince Charles can wander around his pesticide-free estate, but when he comes back in he has personal assistants on hand to clean his shoes for him (or squeeze his toothpaste). Buyers of Spiezia organic beauty cream don’t get their hands dirty; they just hand more cash over the counter.

This is why, although the organic market has grown enormously, it is still only one per cent of the total food and drink market. It has a public profile way above its real public clout. Yet the Soil Association argues that its way should be the way for everyone. ‘All farming should be organic’, one delegate told me. ‘People who aren’t so well off care about their health too.’ London Mayor Ken Livingstone outlined a plan to roll out organic food in ‘schools, hospitals, prisons’, as well as trying to ‘change people’s attitudes’. Porritt warned euphemistically of ‘shocks’ that would be necessary to get people to stop their consuming ways and see the light.

But the Soil Association doesn’t represent the interests of all. It criticises the food industry yet that industry has done much to make food healthier, tastier and more efficiently produced over the past century. Thanks to improvements in productivity, less and less land is required as farmland. This leaves old farmland as slack, which gives farmers room to play around with organic farming. Ironically, then, organic farming is really only a viable option because of the gains in agricultural productivity elsewhere in the economy.

The Soil Association’s proposal for Britain would mean wasting efforts and resources, which could be better applied to different ends. Why would we want more workers on the land than was absolutely necessary? Why would we want to pay more for our food? Perhaps the Soil Association is the one who really needs to face up to reality.

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Topics Politics


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