Beyond Organic: a vision of the future

Matt Adams

01 November 2011

I like to imagine a future where everybody intuitively understands that the aim of food production is to maximise its nutritional qualities for the benefit of humans and the planet. To achieve this, I think the future direction for the sustainable food movement is to dismantle the organic certification scheme and instead encourage the growing of food for nutrition. However, the way we currently understand what truly nourishes us needs to be explored beyond how we understand it today. Once a better understanding is found, the standard for ‘nutritious’ food can be formed. To achieve this will require growers, suppliers and processors to think carefully about how they interact with the natural environment. This includes treating the soil with care and respect, ensuring that essential (living) nutrients are not destroyed in processing and that the natural environment is not degraded by unnecessary transport and distribution.

To maximise the benefit for consumers of highly nutritious food, they too need to be part of the loop and have an awareness and appreciation of the whole process and support this by making choices in the food they buy. To eat such food could potentially be wasted if the consumer does not appreciate or recognise that they too are part of what makes ‘good nutrition’ work. Being happy, content or fulfilled are states of being that can all help increase the effectiveness of eating well grown food because our bodies will naturally absorb and utilise nutrients more efficiently. This in turn will increase our ability to repair and maintain our own health.

Natural dynamism

The trouble with nutrition today is that our understanding of it has become stagnant. We tend to think of it as a static entity – for example the nutrition label on the side of every packaged food and recommended daily intakes are always the same – but in reality nutrition is dynamic and fluid. Nutritive values may be high one year but lower the next. This simply reflects the change in the growing season which is never the same. Or in the case of local food the same crops grown on different soils will be greatly influenced by the mineral composition of its underlying geology. This reflects the natural environment and should be celebrated. I have always been taken by the idea that we should eat the same food that is grown under the same sun as where we live. We live in a world of micro-climates and so no two climates are going to be the same. Why then, should our nutrition?

Nutrition comes from our interaction with nature of which humans are a part. For too long now we have thought of ourselves as being outside of nature with the ability to control it at will. This belief is now having serious consequences and I believe a feedback loop to control this is naturally emerging.

‘Dig for Victory’ was the mantra of the Second World War yet the food available to us since the war has lost around 40% of its key minerals – other nutrients have probably suffered too – we just don’t know. This figure is based on historical research, commissioned by the UK government which periodically checks a selection of fruit, vegetables, meats, milk and cheese for major nutrients. Whilst controversial (apparently due to outdated methods and equipment being used all those years ago) it does suggest a trend which, intuitively, many people believe to be true. For example, during this same period of (potential) nutrient decline, degenerative diseases have increased dramatically and the quality of our environment has declined rapidly. The correlation seems strong between nutrition, health and the planet.

Lady Eve Balfour, founder of the Soil Association held the opinion that ‘organic agriculture should become the primary health service’. Sadly this dream has not been realised. In fact today the nation’s health has never been worse. In 2004 I carried out an internet based research project and concluded from this that 83% of all deaths in the UK were caused by degenerative disease. This in part may be due to a rise in the average life expectancy, but the number of children today, suffering from the development of a chronic degenerative disease is rising rapidly. We hear report after report on the obesity epidemic and other major health issues, including mental illness are generally on the rise among children. This means that between 10 and 40 years from now they will need NHS funding for their strokes, heart attacks, cancer, dementia, etc at a cost which even the present system cannot afford. It also threatens to bring down the average life expectancy just as retirement age is set to be increased.

We plough £billions into treatment but very little into curing root problems and the environmental impact of working this way is very high. In my life time (46) we have seen a consistent loss of biodiversity, increasing consumption of nonrenewable resources and now, we are threatened by climate change. Financially we are now in the midst of a third major recession, each one being worst than the last. Can we afford to maintain this approach to health into the future? Or will we be forced to look for cheaper alternatives? Growing food for health is a positive action that could lead to a better, more sustainable world.

Long term consequences

The consequence of poor nutrition can literally take generations to become apparent. There have been a number of independent studies in the first half of the 20th century, using animals fed on ‘poor quality food’, that show how degenerative disease is passed from parent to offspring. The outcome of all these studies is that the next generation will develop the same health issues but at an earlier age. Surely we need a fresh approach to understanding how we really derive our nourishment.

Dr McCarrison (an early pioneer of the organic movement) was impressed with the health and vitality of the Hunza tribe and in a lecture given to the Royal Society, many years ago, spoke about the quality of their food: ‘There is something in the freshness and quality of food which is not accounted for by the known chemical ingredients of food – proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins.’

There is unfinished business and knowledge to learn concerning some of the smaller, more subtle nutrients such as micro-nutrients. Even harder to grasp there may be ‘non-physical’ nutrients that we have not yet thought about. For example, what is the net result of nature working in harmony to produce food – humans tend the soil with compost; allowing micro-organisms to work with plants; plants react to the climate and so on? This promotes the cyclical nature of life and many life forms and wider environment will benefit as a result. From this we get nourishment, embodied in our food. An additional quality that brings ‘vitality or life’, the value of which would be proportional to how well we have cooperated with natural processes. Encouraging this additional nutrient into our lives could help enhance our own sense of happiness and wellbeing which together would contribute to better nutrition.

It is worth remembering that the diet of the Hunzas may not have been particularly varied or high in nutrient content but, we assume, it was well grown, using compost, to feed soil life and in tune with each year’s growing season. An inspiring example of sustainable living.

In our mad dash to increase yields and promote access to affordable food (the aim of the Common Agricultural Policy) we have taken our eye off the ball. Food quality in the 20th century has come to mean ‘quantity’. Yield per acre and cosmetic appearance are major factors whilst nutrition and health are largely ignored. The yield argument still dominates today but at a recent debate in London on how to feed a growing population there was a slight glimmer of encouragement. A few people, such as Susan Jebb from the Medical Research Council, Cambridge, began speaking out for nutrition:

We have really got to recognise that the way we eat now and our obsession with having more food more cheaply really is not in the interests of the planet or indeed for us as individuals. We have really got to re-think the way that we eat – putting much greater emphasis on the quality of the food we consume at a nutritional level.

Organic issues

Nutrition is a politically and economically sensitive issue. In the last decade there have been four public debates (2000, 2003, 2007 and 2009) over whether organic is more nutritious than conventionally grown food. The conclusion of the Food Standards Agency in 2009 was that ‘there is no nutritional difference between organic and conventionally grown food and there is no evidence that a diet of organic food makes a difference to our health.’

The most recent of these studies (QLIF, a £12 million PAN European study) found that on the whole organic food contains more anti-oxidants than conventionally grown food with between 20% and 80% more. However, it also discovered that some of the best conventional farms produced more nutritious crops than the worst organic farms. If we were grading food grown in this study by its nutritional qualities (as we understand it today) we would have accepted some non organic and organic produce. This seems a fairer route to take. If we continue to rely on the organic certification scheme we would have rejected some food that was very well grown, with high levels of nutrients, in favour of some ‘organic’ foods that were not.

There are other problems with the certification schemes. They work well for large organic producers. The cost for small producers is often prohibitive, however their contribution is possibly more sustainable and of better quality, but it is excluded from being called ‘organic’. This situation seems very unfair. If we switched from certification to a nutritional standard we could see overnight an increased market share of ‘healthy food’. Hypothetically we could suddenly go from 2% (the share of organic food) to say, 10 or 15% of all food being classified as nutritious.

It feels that the original impulse behind organic is being lost. The way I see the future is to begin planning the demise of certification bodies and concentrate instead on improving our understanding of nutrition and developing a more meaningful ‘yard stick’ by which to measure food quality.

I believe that we should be working towards a renewed understanding of nutrition that links soil, plant, human and planetary health. Creating some kind of standard would help eliminate doubts about whether the food was nutritious or not and eliminate the potential for loop holes. This creates a strong platform from which continual improvement of both quality and efficient production can be achieved. It also provides a solid base for marketing and developing the argument that better food can and will save money by improving well-being, health and the planet.

This means that instead of certification bodies sitting at the bottom, trying to ‘push’ quality through a number of processes it stands at the top and ‘pulls’ it through to meet a meaningful standard.

There is no doubt that nutrition is a complicated area to study but this should not stop us from trying. Growing food is the most direct and deliberate impact that humans can have on the natural world. We are what we eat and what we eat is largely dictated by what we think. The gauntlet has been laid down by the FSA and instead of giving up we should accept the challenge and renew our inspiration from people like McCarrison and Lady Eve Balfour.

Matt Adams has been Chief Executive of The Good Gardeners Association since 2011.

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.

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