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.