Since 1946 the Soil Association has grown from a small, but influential voice challenging the orthodoxy of chemical-based, intensive agriculture to an international authority on the principles and practices of organic farming.
This timeline of achievements highlights how our interests and activities cover the whole spectrum of animal welfare, the environment, human health, international development, resource management, rural culture and employment.
Promoting positive health
Then: Husband and wife team, Drs George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse publish their research from the Peckham Health Club, 1935-39. Their survey of 950 families, The Peckham Experiment, shows how a preventative approach that builds positive health through education, nutrition and exercise, is more effective than curing ill-health. Williamson and Pearse join Lady Eve Balfour and others as founding members of the Soil Association in 1946.
Now: In the spirit of the Peckham Experiment, the Soil Association launches Food for Life in 2003, which champions healthy food and cooking skills for all school children. We expose the fact that 37p is spent on an average school lunch. Boosted by TV chef, Jamie Oliver, the Soil Association's campaign forces the Government to pledge an extra £280 million in 2005 for school dinners.
Alerting the public to the perils of pesticides
Then: In its first issue, the precursor of Living Earth, the Soil Association journal, Mother Earth, questions the use of DDT (an insecticide) in agriculture: "By the wholesale use of powerful insecticides of which far too little is yet known, we may well be upsetting the whole balance of Nature. We are like schoolboys rat-hunting in a munition dump with a flame-thrower."
Now: Over the next three decades evidence of DDT's impacts as a persistent pollutant and suspected carcinogen mounts. Finally, in 1978, the Soil Association's concerns are vindicated, when DDT is banned across Europe from most agricultural use, with a total ban in 1983.
Making links between soil fertility and food quality
Then: The Soil Association's first annual conference, Health and the Soil, makes connections between soil fertility, the presence of trace elements and minerals, and human health.
Now: 50 years later, in 2001, Soil Association research highlights Ministry of Agriculture studies showing declines in minerals in UK fruit and vegetables of up to 76% over the period 1940 to 1991. In 2004, the Committee of Advertising Practice approves 30 positive statements about organic food including this one: 'No food has higher amounts of beneficial minerals, essential amino acids and vitamins than organic food.'
Then: Widespread use of antibiotics to control disease and promote animal growth begins in US factory-farms. Over the next few decades concern grows over their role in reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics used in human medicine. The Soil Association's first organic standards, published in 1967, prohibit the routine use of drugs and antibiotics in livestock, and the use of antibiotic animal feed. The death of several children linked to antibiotic resistant bacteria in livestock leads to a government inquiry in 1969 under Lord Swann, which advises against use of antibiotic growth promoters. Swann's recommendations are only partly implemented.
Now: A Soil Association long-running campaign leads to EU ban on six antibiotic feed additives in 1999.
Exposing the truth about agribusiness
Then: British publication of Rachel Carson's seminal book, Silent Spring, details the environmental costs of pesticide use, and generates a surge in environmental concern. Animal Machines, a devastating critique of factory farming's appalling animal welfare, published by Soil Association member Ruth Harrison, turns the spotlight on intensive livestock farming.
Now: In 2002, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) reports that the level of animal welfare stipulated in Soil Association standards far exceeds that of other farm assurance schemes.
Setting the standard – a world-first
Then: Soil Association standards drafted for organically-produced food, giving guidance on animal welfare, soil stewardship and food quality. Farmers are required to sign up to follow a code of practice.
Now: Soil Association standards for farmers and food manufacturers require a rigorous inspection and annual audit, enshrined in EU law.
Our philosophy made marketable
Then: Soil Association president, Dr E. F. Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful), urges that organic philosophy be manifested by the commercial availability of 'poison-free' food.
Now: The organic food and drink market is now worth a staggering £1.6 billion, after growing 30% in the last year (compared to the non-organic market which grew only 3%). One in three consumers is now knowingly buying organic food.
Creating consumer power
Then: Soil Association Marketing Company Ltd is formed (now Soil Association Certification Ltd) to certify and promote organic produce. Our symbol, based on the plane of infinity by mathematician Boy, is registered as a trademark. First symbol for a processed organic product is granted to Aspall apple juices, farmed by Soil Association co-founder Perronelle Guild (who died in 2004 at the ripe old age of 101).
Now: The Soil Association now certifies over 70% of organic food and drink sold in the UK. Aspall's is still thriving, with their cyder and cyder vinegar coming from a 100 year-old orchard, which has been organic since 1946.
Then: In 1983, the Soil Association bans animal protein from organic livestock feed for ruminants (cattle and sheep) as an unnatural feeding cycle, rightly predicting serious consequences. Three years after the ban, the first case of BSE (mad cow disease) is confirmed in 1986. In 1988, the government finally bans animal protein from all ruminant feed. In May 1995, the first person dies from variant CJD linked to BSE.
Now: The Government inquiry into BSE and variant CJD published in 2000 states: 'BSE developed into an epidemic as a consequence of an intensive farming practice - the recycling of animal protein in ruminant feed.' There have been no recorded cases of BSE confirmed in any organic cattle reared and raised on fully-converted organic farms.
Working for wildlife
Then: A Government conservation agency report published in 1984, Nature Conservation in Britain, details loss and damage to wildlife over the past 50 years, e.g. 95% of wildflower meadows destroyed. Intensive agriculture noted as the main cause.
Now: In 2000, a joint report with WWF-UK cites 41 scientific studies showing that organic farms support more wildlife than non-organic farms. An English Nature and RSPB survey in 2004 confirms that organic farming supports greater numbers and varieties of birds, wild-plants, insects and bats. The government awards organic farmers £30 more per hectare than non-organic farmers in recognition of these wildlife benefits.
Pioneering local food
Then: Organic farmers, Jan and Tim Deane create the first organic fruit and veg box. Initially providing boxes for 20 families, within 4 years they are supplying 200. The first regular organic food market is established, at Spitalfields in London. The Soil Association's Community Supported Agriculture conference promotes the concept more widely.
Now: Today over 500 organic veg box schemes are operating in the UK. There are 550 farmers' markets with an annual turnover of £220 million. 15% of produce sold at these is organic.
Then: A Soil Association campaign to keep the UK GM-free attracts widespread public support and leads to a supermarket ban on GM ingredients from own-brand products. In 1998, the Soil Association challenges the government and GM seed companies in the high court to halt a GM trial threatening an organic grower, Guy Watson. Judges rule that the government has acted illegally.
Now: Following widespread public opposition and negative impacts of GM field trials on the environment, the government announces in 2004 that GM crops will not be commercially grown in the UK in the foreseeable future.
Foot and mouth
Then: The disease devastates the UK livestock industry. The Soil Association challenges the government policy of mass slaughter, recommending voluntary and selective vaccination instead.
Now: A position rejected at the time, but it is now official policy throughout Europe to tackle any future outbreaks.
Then: The 2001 Soil Association report Myth and Reality states, 'There is already enough food to feed the world. Hunger will be alleviated when poverty is alleviated. Intensive farming destroys the fertility of the land and is unsustainable. Organic methods help labour-rich but cash-poor communities to produce food sustainability.'
Now: In 2005, the head of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Agency, Dr Tewolde Berhan, endorses organic farming as the sustainable, practical way to feed the world, "In a harsh-climate and a largely agricultural economy we need to rediscover an approach to agriculture which supports long-term food security and protects soil fertility. Organic farming is the way forward for Ethiopia."