I just returned form the Soil Association annual conference, this year at the Custard Factory, Birmingham. The Future of Food was a great event with the expected mass of interesting foodies, farmers, cooks, researchers and lobbyists. The most impressive and compelling were Carlo Leifert on ‘peak-phosphorous’ (Newcastle University), Patrick Mulvany, Victoria Johnson, (new economics foundation) and Darina Allen who seemed to have swallowed the blarney stone (Ballymaloe Cookery School), plus the people involved with the School for Life Partnership.

Organic food has recently taken a bashing and the conference had an air of reflection and reaching out to the mainstream to try and re-focus.

The questions the movement was asking itself was reflected in the numbers for the workshops on Thursday morning. ‘Organic elitism – is it for the chosen few?’ was packed with I’d say around 150 probably about half the conference. The workshops were led by marketing gurus and the guy from Innocent Smoothies.

Why we should be listening to the guy who sold his business to Coca Cola I’m not sure, but that we were set alarm bells ringing. The organics movement is big and wide, so inevitably there’s a range of views. But the room seemed to be split down a differing conception about what the task was. On the one hand the task seemed to be to cleverly market the ‘organic brand’, to sell processed good through the supermarkets and ‘mainstream and popularise’ organic products.

On the other hand there was people who ran organic food co-ops, CSAs and people like Phil Haughton from Better Food who view this as a movement, not a brand. The movement wing see the task as transforming the food system not sustaining it, moving away from supermarket dominance not ensuring its continuity and moving away from packaged, processed food to fresh and local.

Most of the room came away remembering that the essence of the idea behind by organic agriculture is a change in focus. The new focus is on the quality of the crops grown and their suitability for human nutrition. That is a change from the more common focus on growing as much quantity as possible and using whatever chemical techniques contribute to increasing that quantity.

It’s a shift from quanity (the yield obsession) to quality (is this good for us?) as the metric.

None of the non-chemical techniques associated with organic farming are radical or new. Compost, crop rotations, green manures and so on are age-old agricultural practices. What is radical is the belief that these time-proven “natural” techniques produce food that is more nourishing for people and livestock than food grown with chemicals. What is radical is successfully pursuing that “unscientific” belief against the counter-propaganda and huge commercial power of the agrochemical industry.

This is the task – nourishing ouselves and our soil in the context of the new challenge, not just addressing our awful records on health but doing this in a sustinable way as part of the shift to a low carbon society. Monty Don, president of the Soil Association is a supremely articulate, grounded and passionate guy and his plea that ‘we cant go on with business a usual’ was clearly spoken.

But there is an inherent contradiction between ‘we cant go in with business as usual’ and ‘our main strategy is to brand ourselves so effectively we get major supermarket penetration’ to use the marketing lingo.

The problem is creating a strategy that shift us and moves away from the agenda of selling through supermarkets, big farming, mass production, export growth and business as usual. I didn’t see that strategy at the Custard factory but I was inspired to keep looking for it.

  • fifediet February 19, 2010 at 11:48


  • Pete Ritchie February 19, 2010 at 07:12

    MIke – I completely agree. I think the SA was rather seduced by mainstream recognition in the 90s into focusing on a health and taste sales drive. Now the organic brands are taking on the responsibility of doing their own marketing rather than relying on SA, there’s a great opportunity to do what you suggest. The key thing is to believe that there is an alternative – which for me makes the food sovereignty approach such a great ‘rethinking’ tool – and then to get organised!

  • fifediet February 17, 2010 at 08:59

    Thanks Pete, true the brand-movement is not unique. What brought this to focus at the SA conference was the presentation preview of a major new marketing campaign to launch in the UK later this year and the feeling from a great many participants that in the search for the mainstream the organic movement was in danger of losing a real opportunity for a transformation of the food system, which is now so essential.

    By focusing on the (low) price of processed goods – biscuits and organic Heinz beans were two examples highlighted – we might shed the ‘elitist’ image of organics, but by selling exclusively into supermarkets we might also be helping to maintain an entirely unsustainable food infrastructure.
    Obviously this is not a simple either-or but what seemed to be missing was a strategy in the campaign to promote direct farm sales, food co-ops, fresh local produce through CSAs, food hubs and the many emerging alternatives to the supermarket experience.

  • pete ritchie February 16, 2010 at 21:35

    Thanks for the helpful report. The tension between the movement and the brand is not unique to organics, but common to many social change efforts. With the creation of independent organic marketing initiatives the Soil Association is in a better position to concentrate on movement-building. While many of the core organic practices are not new, many organic farmers and growers are applying a scientific approach to plant breeding, fertility management, carbon sequestration, plant and soil health promotion – but as you know the research spend in the UK is small.
    Good news from France today – all schools from 2012 have to include 12% of organic food in school meals.

  • fifediet February 11, 2010 at 09:39

    There was some discussion of this – I agree totally that “organics are good for me” rather than “organics are good for us” perpetuates a shallow consumerist mindset, at the same time there was felt a need to defend the attacks of the FSA.

    I think this was part of the problem of leaving it to be a brand to be promoted rather than a movement to build.

  • Osbert Lancaster February 9, 2010 at 19:27

    Mike, thanks for that though I’m concerned to learn that

    “The new focus is on the quality of the crops grown and their suitability for human nutrition”

    In my view the real benefits of organic production are not the direct nutritional benefits, but the indirect benefits of lower net environmental impact. The message that “organics are good for me” rather than “organics are good for us” perpetuates a shallow consumerist mindset.

    Any thoughts from the conference on this?