For health, peace and permanence

Lawrence Woodward

04 November 2010

Recently, I found myself standing outside a conference room as it emptied of delegates following a meeting convened by the Soil Association. The meeting had been about the marketing and branding of organic food. During the meeting, several marketing and brand experts had apparently declared that the organic ‘message’ was too complicated and needed to be simplified; that the organic principles ‘got in the way’ of this task, as did attempts to educate people about the principles. And, by the way, as the word ‘organic’ is a bit passé, how about dropping it?

No-one I spoke to was sure whether this last suggestion was tongue in cheek or not, but ‘marketing and brand experts’ have to keep coming up with new ideas because that is how they earn their living.

So they ignore the fact that: organic producers, researchers, small charities and small businesses created the market from nothing to one worth millions without their ‘expertise’; that the iconic, potent and most successful of promotional slogans – ‘Organic: food you can trust’ – conveyed a truth built on the integrity of organic principles and the organic message; and that the organic market came from a selfless movement for change, not the pursuit of global premium branding that will ultimately morph into a mélange of other premium brands.

They simply do not understand that the ‘brand’ organic is based on concepts and values that go to the fundamental nature of life, and to ignore this will make the ‘brand’ worthless. Nor do they understand that growing and processing genuine organic food is qualitatively different from the ‘conventional’ non-organic food chain; that it is constrained by ecological, biological and nutritional limits; that to survive – let alone thrive – it needs a qualitatively different relationship between those involved, one not based on production and consumption but on citizenship and a shared understanding of the nature of life.

With this in mind I read Urs Niggli’s essay in Mother Earth (vol 2, spring 2010) in which he writes “the relevance of organic agriculture and organic food consumption is highly disputed by policy makers and the scientific community alike”. After 35 years working in organic agriculture, much of that time engaging with policy makers and scientists, I am distressed to say that I agree with him. In fact, I believe that the list of sceptics can be extended to include many environmentalists, animal welfare groups, and civil society campaigners.

I also agree with his view that the focus on standards and certification has led to organic stakeholders being too self-centred; and that the pursuit of a mainstream business model has hindered the development of innovative approaches more in line with organic principles. These factors have got in the way of positioning organic at the centre of strategies to address global challenges.

It should be pointed out that most of the organisations and individuals who have devoted time and resources to developing certification and regulation, including myself and Organic Research Centre – Elm Farm (ORC), the Soil Association and many others in the International Federation of Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), are charities and non-governmental organisations – not businesses – and are making those efforts so that the market can be a vehicle for educating and communicating the fundamental organic concepts and values.

Ironically, it has not been the business sector but the education sector which created the organic market and developed the regulatory conditions that enable those businesses and marketers who now want to dumb down the organic message in order to make money.

In fact it could be argued that in order to achieve this we ourselves engaged in a significant dumbing down exercise. Almost from its beginning, and in hindsight with stunning naivety, the international organic movement seemed to assume that bringing about an increase in the number of organic producers would automatically lead to an uptake of its fundamental concepts.

Our aim was to get organic agriculture recognised and into the mainstream. “Organic is good, organic is good” became our mantra. Inevitably, the readily accessible parts of the ‘organic message’ were highlighted, while the more difficult bits were pushed into the background.

Moreover, our critical faculties were put on hold. After all, it is asking a lot to worry about the extent to which the nuances of processing methods affect the hypothetical ‘vitality and life-energy chain’ while arguing with a disbelieving government or EU official that organic farming should be taken seriously. There was a willingness to push towards what was perceived to be the mainstream at any costs, comforting in the notion that anything that led to more certified organic producers and product was a good thing.

The argument was hypnotic: we are all in business in the here and now; we have to survive commercially, so let’s produce as many products as we can and sell as much as we can wherever we can. It is unfortunate that the way the market system works means we have to transport our goods all around the world. It is unfortunate that not enough people want to eat wholefood-type products to base a business on. It is unfortunate that we need derogations and some questionable additives to produce the products the market wants at the right price in the right shape so that they can be sold in the large stores where everyone shops these days. As long as the raw material is certified organic we are providing income for the producers and processors, wherever they are in the world. This will encourage more organic farming, which is good for at least some parts of the organic movement’s aspirations.

Naïve it might have been, but in crude terms the approach has been amazingly successful. Organic agriculture is recognised. It is in the mainstream. There is a global, albeit a niche, market for organic produce. There are organic producers and organic businesses in all parts of the world, and many of them are extremely successful. There are even organic millionaires, although not many of them are working farmers. There are organic regulations in many countries. There are organic action plans and support schemes. Organisations such as the EU and Food and Agriculture Organisation even mention it in some of their policy documents and statements.

Nonetheless, as Urs Niggli points out, organic farming is generally seen as irrelevant by most significant organisations or players on the world stage in tackling the critical issues of our time.

Moreover, the concepts and values that underpin the technology of organic farming are even less regarded. Consider the overarching concept captured by Lady Eve Balfour in her memorable sentence, “the health of the soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible”. Is it generally accepted as a concept? Is it a basic part of health care, of food and nutritional policy, of third world aid, veterinary medicine, education? Is it framed in legislation? Is it an organising principle of commerce and trade? Is it a basis of social organisation? No it is not.

In truth, we have we not made the impact we should have on those fundamental life and death issues. The international organic movement is not yet – and seems as far away as ever from being – an effective vehicle for bringing about a more equitable, healthy and genuinely sustainable world.

Why we have been so successful at promoting organic farming at one level, yet so unsuccessful in promulgating our underlying principles and influencing policy on the key issues facing our civilisation, is a question I have grappled with for years. I have come to no definitive conclusions but have some insights.
As I stated above, I agree with Urs Niggli’s view about being overly focused on the mainstream market, certification and regulation. However, I also think that we have failed to understand, develop and communicate our underpinning concepts and values, and we have not consistently and coherently evolved policies and actions from them. This is a difficult area and there is a danger of overstating to make a point but I want to try to explore this a little.

For the sake of argument I see the agreement setting the IFOAM principles in 1980–81 as a milestone in the emergence of the regeneration of the modern organic movement. Those principles were:

  1. To work as much as possible within a closed system, and draw upon local resources
  2. To maintain the long-term fertility of soils
  3. To avoid all forms of pollution that may result from agricultural techniques
  4. To produce foodstuffs of high nutritional quality and sufficient quantity
  5. To reduce the use of fossil energy in agricultural practice to a minimum
  6. To give livestock conditions of life that conform to their physiological needs and to humanitarian principles
  7. To make it possible for agricultural producers to earn a living through their work and develop their potential as human beings
  8. To use and develop appropriate technology based on an understanding of biological systems
  9. To use decentralised systems for processing, distribution and marketing of products
  10. To create a system which is aesthetically pleasing to both those within and those outside the system
  11. To maintain and preserve wildlife and their habitats.

The IFOAM principles reflected the key concepts and strands of organic thought and practice going back to the 1920s, the post war emergence of environmentalism and the issues of equity, finite resources, and the principle of limits that emerged in the 1960s. These were:

  • The Biodynamic or anthroposophical school of Steiner
  • The Organic-Biological school of Muller and Rusch
  • The Organic strand of Howard, Balfour and Rodale
  • The work of Schuphan and Voisin
  • The ideas of post-Rachel Carson – Silent Spring – environmentalists
  • The Schumacher perspective of human scale technology, with patterns of production and consumption appropriate to a world of finite resources.

These all had a separate genesis, history and development but they overlapped and shared a common thread which reflected even if not drawn from Smuts’ concept of holism.

Key ideas from the older organic traditions were retained, most notably:

  • “That health, whether of soil, plant, animal or man, is one and indivisible”
  • The concept of the farm as a living organism, tending towards a closed system in respect to nutrient flows but responsive and adapted to its own environment
  • The concept of soil fertility through a ‘living soil’ which has the capacity to influence and transmit health through the food chain to plants, animals and man. And that this can be enhanced over time.

But the drawing together of these strands created a different conceptual base – even though undeveloped – from previous organic movements. In particular, the environmental and Schumacher perspective providing modernity that broadened its appeal to a wide range of people and interests.

However, neither these strands nor the IFOAM principles were ever synthesised into a coherent concept and, in my view, have not yet evolved into either a cogent philosophy or a testable research hypothesis, nor a consistent policy or political manifesto.

There have been some attempts at all of these and others may be more positive about them than I am. It is clear, for example, that these principles and concepts have had a huge influence on how organic farming practice and regulation has developed. They have created a common basis of organic agriculture wherever it is found in the world. There is an understanding of what organic farm management looks like – or should look like – wherever it is. It concentrates primarily on adjustments within the farm and farming system, in particular rotations and appropriate manure management and cultivations, to achieve an acceptable level of output. External inputs are generally adjuncts or supplements to this management of internal features.

In many other areas – such as the nature of processing – questions of the link between food quality and health, animal health and welfare, issues of equity and trade, and the lack of coherence in our underpinning concepts have led to illogicality, inconsistency and a tendency to accept the conventional or mainstream rather than develop our own response.

Urs Niggli believes that we must work closer together with like minded organisations “far beyond the organic philosophy”. He is right, but not as right as when he argues that “we should be focusing on placing the underlying organic principles in the context of modern day challenges”. Of course we have to do both, but I believe that a major reason for our limited recognition in the global policy forum is that we have not developed our underpinning concepts in a coherent or relevant way. Far too often we slip into using other people’s scripts and actions, thereby losing our identity.

We also fail to follow through on our successes. It is now over five years since IFOAM published a revised set of organic principles. This came after a task force, of which I was a member, spent a year reviewing the history, current status, thoughts and member’s opinions of the concepts, principles and standards. These revised principles reinforce the underlying and traditional concepts, and set them in a modern context. Yet in its work on standards, regulation, policy and education, IFOAM and the rest of the organic sector seem to ignore them completely.

I think these revised principles are critical to the future development and regeneration of the organic movement so I include them here:

Principle of health

Organic Agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.

This principle points out that the health of individuals and communities cannot be separated from the health of ecosystems – healthy soils produce healthy crops that foster the health of animals and people. Health is the wholeness and integrity of living systems. It is not simply the absence of illness, but the maintenance of physical, mental, social and ecological well-being. Immunity, resilience and regeneration are key characteristics of health.

The role of organic agriculture, whether in farming, processing, distribution or consumption, is to sustain and enhance the health of ecosystems and organisms from the smallest in the soil to human beings. In particular, organic agriculture is intended to produce high quality, nutritious food that contributes to preventive health care and well-being. In view of this it should avoid the use of fertilisers, pesticides, animal drugs and food additives that may have adverse health effects.

Principle of ecology

Organic Agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.

This principle roots organic agriculture within living ecological systems. It states that production is to be based on ecological processes and recycling. Nourishment and well-being are achieved through the ecology of the specific production environment. For example, in the case of crops this is the living soil; for animals it is the farm ecosystem; for fish and marine organisms, the aquatic environment.

Organic farming, pastoral and wild harvest systems should fit the cycles and ecological balances in nature. These cycles are universal but their operation is site-specific. Organic management must be adapted to local conditions, ecology, culture and scale. Inputs should be reduced by reuse, recycling and efficient management of materials and energy in order to maintain and improve environmental quality and conserve resources.

Organic agriculture should attain ecological balance through the design of farming systems, establishment of habitats and maintenance of genetic and agricultural diversity. Those who produce, process, trade, or consume organic products should protect and benefit the common environment including landscapes, climate, habitats, biodiversity, air and water.

Principle of fairness

Organic Agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.Fairness is characterised by equity, respect, justice and stewardship of the shared world, both among people and in their relations to other living beings.

This principle emphasises that those involved in organic agriculture should conduct human relationships in a manner that ensures fairness at all levels and to all parties – farmers, workers, processors, distributors, traders and consumers. Organic agriculture should provide everyone involved with a good quality of life, and contribute to food sovereignty and reduction of poverty. It aims to produce a sufficient supply of good quality food and other products.

This principle insists that animals should be provided with the conditions and opportunities of life that accord with their physiology, natural behaviour and well-being.

Natural and environmental resources that are used for production and consumption should be managed in a way that is socially and ecologically just and should be held in trust for future generations. Fairness requires systems of production, distribution and trade that are open and equitable and account for real environmental and social costs.

Principle of care

Organic Agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

Organic agriculture is a living and dynamic system that responds to internal and external demands and conditions. Practitioners of organic agriculture can enhance efficiency and increase productivity, but this should not be at the risk of jeopardising health and well-being. Consequently, new technologies need to be assessed and existing methods reviewed. Given the incomplete understanding of ecosystems and agriculture, care must be taken.

This principle states that precaution and responsibility are the key concerns in management, development and technology choices in organic agriculture.

Science is necessary to ensure that organic agriculture is healthy, safe and ecologically sound. However, scientific knowledge alone is not sufficient. Practical experience, accumulated wisdom and traditional and indigenous knowledge offer valid solutions, tested by time. Organic agriculture should prevent significant risks by adopting appropriate technologies and rejecting unpredictable ones, such as genetic engineering. Decisions should reflect the values and needs of all who might be affected, through transparent and participatory processes.

After 35 years in the organic movement I still believe that it can be a force for real change. Its underpinning concepts are valid and revolutionary. I believe work needs to be done to make them more coherent and to draw policies from them that can move the organic movement to a position of fulfilling its task of changing the world to one of peace and permanence.

Lawrence Woodward started work in organic farming in 1975, He was the founding director of the Organic Research Centre (Elm Farm) and held that position for 30 years until 2010. He continues as their principal policy adviser. In 2001, he was awarded the OBE for services to organic farming, having played a pivotal role in the strategic and practical development of the organic sector the UK and internationally. Key positions held include chairman of the British Organic Standards Committee, president and vice president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and member of the Soil Association Council. He continues to write, speak and advise on organic issues.

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.

Join to help us stop the use of neonicotinoids and save our living landscapes

Donate to help us create healthy farmland and countryside without pesticides