September is harvest time and for some, the month to celebrate the organic sector and all it does for climate, nature, and health. This Organic September the Soil Association marks 50 years since the launch of their organic certification in 1973. The scheme arose from demand for proof that food labelled organic was true to that definition, of the highest quality and produced with integrity.
Organic farming has millions of faithful adherents among them Gandhi and King Charles III (whose Duchy Originals brand is the largest organic food and drink brand in the UK). Organic farming eschews synthetic fertilisers and pesticides for practices such as cover cropping and crop rotation to improve soil quality. But what sparked the organic movement, and as the cost-of-living crisis bites, is organic produce worth the extra cost?
Old wine in new bottles?
For millennia farmers have used organic methods to grow food. Forest gardening, for example, a low maintenance system where pasture or crops are integrated symbiotically with trees and shrubs, dates to prehistoric times. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that chemical fertilisers took hold.
Early in the 20th century, two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, devised a way to transform nitrogen in the air into ammonia. Using what became known as the Haber-Bosch process they created synthetic fertiliser on an industrial scale and revolutionised agriculture. Each went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1918, despite Haber acknowledging he knew he was interfering with nature without understanding it.
Technological advances during World War II accelerated post-war innovation in all aspects of agriculture, largely fuelled by the fear of food shortages amidst growing populations. Chemical pesticides drawing on DDT and organophosphates, initially developed to control insect vectors of human disease in the tropics, were used to address pests and pest-driven disasters which had emerged during the agricultural revolution.
However, these miracle inventions weren’t all good. While initially boosting productivity, synthetic fertilisers stimulate excessive growth of microorganisms. Over time this depletes organic matter in the soil and requires yet more fertiliser to get a decent yield. Excess fertiliser can also runoff into streams and lakes causing toxic algal blooms harmful to aquatic life and contribute to aquatic ‘dead zones’ in coastal areas. Intensive farming practices, especially pesticide use, have been identified as the main driver of wildlife decline. Since the 1970s we’ve lost 41% of Britain’s wildlife species and more than one in ten species are on the brink of extinction.
Muck and mystery
The concept of organic agriculture began in the early 20th century, primarily in Europe, but also in the United States. Pioneers of the organic movement wished to reverse the perennial problems of agriculture soil depletion, decline of crop varieties, low quality food and live-stock feed, and rural poverty. They saw an intrinsic link between the health of a nation and the vitality of its soil.
Lady Eve Balfour, daughter of a suffragette, niece of a prime minister and the first woman ever to study agriculture at University bought New Bells farm in Haughley Green, Suffolk aged just 21 with her sister. It was on this farm, in 1939, that she conducted a unique experiment to distinguish whether there was a difference between organic and intensive farming.
The farm was divided into three parts: one intensively farmed, one traditionally farmed and one a mixture of both. Each section was analysed. It showed that organic farming practices did not compromise the overall yield of a farm, yet improved soil health, biodiversity, and crop resilience.
Lady Eve published the initial findings in her seminal book, The Living Soil which inspired the emerging organic food and farming movement. The success that followed led her and a group of likeminded pioneers to form the Soil Association in 1946. Seeing the impact of intensive farming on the natural world they were determined to protect it.
The movement for organic farming was given a boost with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which highlighted the dangers – real and perceived – of pesticides. Silent Spring is a key factor in the banning of DDT in many countries and is credited with launching the worldwide environmental movement.
The soil food web
Chemical fertilisers and pesticides suppress the many beneficial bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, protozoa, nematodes, worms, and other living organisms in the soil that digest organic matter and supply nutrition to plants – an intricate system referred to as the ‘soil food web’. Organic farmers and growers adopt management practices that build and enhance natural soil fertility with the application of organic matter, green manures and long-term crop rotations. Weeds, pests and diseases are controlled through mechanical weeding, variety choice and by encouraging natural predators.
Improving the organic matter in soil enhances its capacity to retain water, reducing the impacts of droughts and floods. It also helps improve soil’s capacity for sequestering carbon and other nutrients, vital for healthy crops that can ward off insects and diseases. Soil is one of the world’s great carbon banks, second only to the oceans in its capacity to sequester CO2. Changes in farming practices, it is said, could actually reverse climate change.
Organic: is it worth paying more?
Even today only 3% of British farmland and 10% of agricultural land in the EU is certified organic, though many more farmers around the world are using uncertified regenerative or agroecological methods.
If we care about our health, animal welfare and the planet, I would argue it is worth forking out (pardon the pun) for better food. Of course, with food and other prices soaring, many people are having to tighten their belt. But for those who can pay a bit more, it’s important to support nature-friendly farms like Tablehurst, Plaw Hatch, Lovebrook, Allwood, Rock Farm, Ashurst, Barcombe and Hankham in Sussex. Organic certification just makes it a bit easier to spot them. Happy 50th anniversary to the Soil Association.
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