Book review: The Development of the Organic Network

Lawrence Woodward

19 December 2012

The Development of the Organic Network: Linking People and Themes 1945-95, Philip Conford Floris Books (2011) ISBN 978-086315-803-2. £25 

The subtitle of Philip Conford’s book is “Linking People and Themes 1945-95”, which he does in an awesomely comprehensive and insightful way. Conford’s mastery of the myriad of strands, events and, above all, personalities, of these fifty years of organic matters is monumental; and he writes with a clarity and verve that makes the period alive and vivid.

Conford says this book should be regarded as a “starting point” and not a definitive history; that he is only mapping out the territory to which others – especially those who disagree with some of his perspectives – can bring evidence and insights to add to its features and colour.

This may prove problematic. As he notes, few of the organic “activists” who played a large part in the second half of this period, have been adept diary keepers or recorders of events. And minutes of meetings tended to be functional or sometimes too coloured by political considerations to be a trusted historical record.

If Philip Conford’s work turns out to be the definitive organic history then we will have been well served. This book enhances his earlier one, The Origins of the Organic Movement, and whilst I disagree with his emphasis in some parts, I think his overall synthesis of the strands, ideas, links and events – which he calls the “Organic Network” – rings true and clear, and is compelling and educative.

In the book, he notes my own reluctance to use the term “organic movement” but he uses it and points out; “Among members of the organic movement one can find every shade of political opinion; a variety of religious faiths, as well as a rejection of the ‘spiritual'; a desire to change the system from the inside and determination not to compromise with the system; a belief that the case for organic cultivation can be made on purely scientific grounds and that the case is essentially ethical: and so on.“

The organic sector – by which I mean the aggregation of agriculture, processing, business, markets, organisations, individuals, regulations, lobbies, images, buzzwords and remnants of a movement that identify or use the term ‘organic’ – we see today is, to a large degree, a direct consequence of the activities of what Conford calls “the seventies generation”.

These people – often farmers and growers but also researchers, environmentalists, food and health advocates, processors and retailers – emerged in the late 1970s/early 1980s and began to revitalise and grow the organic movement.

The book captures the challenges and the eventual conflicts that accompanied this growth. It explores the strained relationships with older Soil Association members, including Lady Eve Balfour; the struggles against a hostile conventional agricultural, food and research establishment; the up and down relationship with government; and the often bitter fights over standards, government regulations and ultimately how commercialisation and the market began to shape or misshape the organic movement’s aspirations.

Conford argues that the emergence of “the seventies generation” did not mark a “disjunction” with the earlier years of the organic movement. He makes a robust case that through the influence of individuals, personal connections and the resilience of “organicist” ideas and philosophy, there was a continuity that should be acknowledged and cherished; not least because some very talented people made important contributions before the “seventies generation” came along.

Without disputing this latter point, I have, in the past, felt that he overstates his case. However, reading these chapters has caused me to revise my view somewhat. I certainly do not feel any “kinship” to those past Soil Association figures whose “blood and soil”, ruralist little Englander, overly paternalistic views disguised an ineffective but nonetheless disturbing strain of extreme right wing and even fascist tendencies.

But I do recognise that ideas which are part of the organic world view or philosophy were espoused and expounded by those Conford calls “organicists” during the 1940s and 50s. However, in my opinion, the social, political and cultural upheavals of the 1960s gave rise to a very different perspective on these ideas and how they might be implemented.

And for several years these differences were fiercely argued over in the Soil Association as younger, more radical, sustainable lifestyle focussed producers (in particular growers) became involved in trying to change an organisation and movement that seemed fixed in a bygone age, and which had little idea about how to become relevant in the post war world. If this wasn’t a “disjunction” it certainly felt like it at the time.

The ideas or underpinning concepts, which Conford rightly identifies as running through the organic movement’s history, relate to limitation, wholeness and holism, natural systems or cycles, linkages between farming, food and health, and various perceptions of spirituality.

It is debateable whether these ideas form a coherent concept or philosophy: Although Conford’s insights and commentary almost persuade one that they might. He recounts how these ideas have relevance to the organic movement in a comprehensive and accessible way and also highlights where conflicts have arisen.

One conflict which is a recurring theme of the book is the organic movement’s embracing of the politics of consumerism and with it the multiple retailers and global marketplace. To illustrate this tension, Conford recalls the old debate about whether the organic movement will have succeeded or failed when an “organic Mars Bar” is marketed.

In fact Mars and other multi-national companies eventually bought and now run organic brands; which highlights just how complex the world has become. So does the organic movement have a place in this world or are ‘organic’ ideas and aspirations going to fade into becoming merely a marketing brand?
This book reminds us that there is an “organic vision” and that it is more relevant now than it has ever been.

Lawrence Woodward was a prominent member of the “seventies generation” and was a leading figure in the Soil Association during the 1980s and early 1990s. He was co-founder and director of the Elm Farm Research Centre (now the Organic Research Centre) and is its Principal Policy Advisor. He co-ordinates Citizens Concerned About GM (www.gmeducation.org) and works on projects relating to farming, food quality and health through Whole Organic Plus. A version of this review has appeared in ORC Bulletin 110. 

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