The Reality of Organics
Undoubtedly the word ‘Organic’ has become a fashionable phrase in many sections of society. Organic food sold at premium prices is said to taste better and to have health benefits superior to orthodox farmed or processed foods. Clothing made from Organic fibres has found it’s way to an eco fashion conscious society. Cosmetics, toiletries and even household products make claims of purity and Organic ingredients.
Journalism, as ever living and off and reporting on, trends have been responsible for this dash from fad to fashion. Organic as a fashion is the child of an affluent, wealthy Western society. Organic claims provide premium prices and bring comfort to those bourgeois middle classes and trend setting celebrities interested for the moment in their health and planetary well being whilst demonstrating their superior financial ability to ‘buy the best’. Organic as a practice on the other hand, is an agricultural method which is the child of the third world farmer or the fundamentalist western farmer especially in the second world. This is a rather telling contrast.
I am a clear supporter of the organic movement. I grew up in a part of the countryside where, what we call organic farming was still practiced. I am a Life member of the Soil Association and was at one time their Marketing Manager and responsible for introducing the Certified Organic scheme to a wider market than food. I still serve on the Cosmetics and Health products Committee so my authority is impeccable!
So I now ask Journalists and Consumers alike, ‘What is Organic’? This is a challenge, as my experiences from extensive lecturing on this and related subjects are, that few have any real idea as to what it is or why there are benefits.
Most consumers glibly comment that Organic means it has not got chemicals. What a terrible indictment of a world education system that allows consumers to brand the wonders of our Chemical world as bad. It smacks of superstition and tribal religion. We, the earth and nature are all pure chemistry in action!
Safety too becomes an issue as ‘Natural’ is considered safe compared to ‘Chemical’. Nature and natural are from safe and has many hazards. Organic gets mixed up in this argument which overshadows the fundamental issue.
However, there are of course, some truths hidden in this common reaction. So let’s get clear what organic is all about. Organic means sustainable development. Organic is not primarily what is put on to a plant but what has been put into the soil. Organic is fundamentally about the Soil, the earth and how to grow things. Only later comes the maintenance of a crop with herbicide or pesticide.
A Little History
It probably began with Sir Robert McCarrison who published an article about the relationship of food and health in 1926 in the Journal of Medical Research. McCarrisons work related to the value of food in preventative disease. This has only become the mantra of the medical profession since as late as 2007. He was right and ahead of his time.
McCarrison worked in North India and was a friend of Sir Albert Howard who had also worked with and studied Agriculture in India. Howard published the book ‘An Agricultural Testament’ the seminal work on what we now call Organic growing. Essentially Howard proposed that Nature was itself a supreme farmer. In other words two eminent men provided a clear medical and agricultural balance. The connection was made between soil and health.
Lady Eve Balfour who farmed at Haughley in Suffolk, England was inspired by Howard’s book. Howard introduced her to McCarrison and a group of interested parties began a friendship and association that later became the organisation ‘The Soil Association, a name which clearly linked soil health with human health.
Lady Eve’s neighbour Miss Alice Debenham had also become interested in these matters and so she set in motion what became known as the ‘Haughley Experiment’. The experiment commencing in 1939, the year of the outbreak of the Second World War, was to compare various farming methods under controlled scientific conditions. A totally Organic section dependent upon it’s own biological fertility was formed alongside a mixed section which allowed for the use of some artificial fertiliser and herbicide. The Soil Association took on the project in 1947 and maintained it until the mid eighties.
As expected the experiment concluded that not only was Organic sustainable agriculture but also viable agriculture. Much as been said about high input farming being the saviour of the starving world. Rather the experiment showed that such ‘orthodox’ farming is not only wasteful of resources but also destructive of soil structure and eco systems such as the important work undertaken by the worm population. The experiment withered and ended when the original farms were sold in 1987 having served their purpose.
Three words we can draw from these times are Soil, Humus and Health. These words were the title of Dr.Shewell-Cooper’s book for the domestic gardener published in 1975. Dr.Shewell-Cooper had founded the Good Gardeners Association in 1955 to encourage gardeners and allotment holders to value Organic gardening methods. He was an advocate of the ‘No Dig’ method encouraging earth and litter worms to do their jobs! His first book the ABC of Vegetable Gardening published in 1937 has never really been bettered!
Gardener’s were also served from the mid fifties by the new Henry Doubleday Research Association founded by Laurence Hills and named for a Quaker agriculturalist who had promoted comfrey as a versatile crop to meet many needs. Research gardens were set up in Bocking, Essex and in the mid eighties at Ryton near Coventry, England. Whilst still growing and supporting many educational activities the associations major contribution is the maintenance of a Heritage Seed bank.
Particularly since the harmonisation programme of the European Union took effect many old national varieties of seeds have been made illegal for sale. The Association disseminates these older varieties to or through its members making sure these varieties are not lost.
The Organic movement grew extensively from these early pioneers. Associations were formed in France the USA, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Similar farms to Haughley were set up in France and Holland. J.Rodale in the USA began his work in publishing the evergreen magazine ‘Organic Gardening’ and the renowned economist Dr.Schumacher promoted similar ideas and ideals. There exists today a Schumacher Society and a McCarrison Society and many other off shoots of these early pioneers perhaps concentrating on certain aspects of what we call the Organic movement. We must also add at the last also the pioneer and philosophical work of Rudolf Steiner influential on many members of today’s Associations and Societies.
So What About the fashion for Organic Cosmetics and Oils?
In about 1986 in Bristol, a number of interested parties were invited to an evening meeting to hear me talk about the future of the new market or outlet for Organically produced material. The meeting was sparsely attended and mainly by farmers. During the evening a few left the meeting considering the whole idea as some sort of joke. Few could see my vision for Organic toiletries or cosmetics. It was astart of a long road.
The Soil Association needed money and the standards adopted for growing materials for food consumption I felt could be adapted to this new market. The symbol could be applied to a variety of goods and allow the consumer to see that these products were different. By paying a license fee for the application of the well known symbol to branded toiletries the consumer would be given new horizons.
Consumers’ today have little understanding of the relationship between an organic shampoo and a farmed product. Similarly they are very hazy as to the real not perceived health benefits. Also consumers are not really aware of the environmental benefits that may also accrue to Organic growing.
In my next article I will show how things did not go according to plan and how and why the Cosmetic and Toiletry industry small producers in particular take consumers for an economic ride and do not help the ideals of Organic. I ask the question, “Do we miss the point of Organics in toiletries?” and “Is an Organic cosmetic really possible?”