The Soil Association is the UK’s leading organic food and farming charity and certification body. The charity involves people, businesses, farmers and growers in various activities and campaigns, including the current ‘Organic September‘ campaign.
Look for the logo this Organic September to help protect wildlife and reduce exposure to potentially harmful pesticides and chemicals – you’ll also be helping to support the farmers who work hard to grow our food for generations to come. However, the change come from you as much as from bigger entities, such as supermarkets: “the crucial thing to remember is that we, as members of the public, have real power over the supermarkets. We should be insisting that supermarkets make safe, ethical and environmentally sustainable decisions on our behalf”. Georgia Farnworth, policy officer at the Soil Association explains, “if the public start demanding certain standards from the big retailers, you’re more likely to see those changes take effect. It’s also important to include supermarkets in these conversations and to draw their attention to certain issues and problems – again, often it’s a case of repeating the same message, loudly and consistently”.
Even if soil may not be a “sexy subject”, it is important to take it into account when it comes to our environment.
We are aware of the need to tackle climate change to feed our population, but at the root of it all, we should look after our soils. Surprisingly, “around 95% of the food we eat comes from the soil. Healthy soils support forests and sustain animals. They absorb and store water – defending us from floods and droughts”.
Soils are also the largest stores of carbon on the planet, and the healthier the soil, the more carbon they can store. This greatly affects the topic of climate change: soils’ carbon stores are released when they’re degraded.
Sadly, intensive farming methods have caused a crisis in soils – it is estimated that over 50% of the world’s agricultural soils are degraded.
Soils are a finite resource, and this is why raising the profile of soil is at the forefront of the association: “we already know what steps farmers can take in order to feed and care for the soil – these are key management techniques in organic farming – and we know that these methods work. Soil really is a remarkably complex ecosystem, and we need to treat it with a greater level of respect and care”.
If you’d like to read more about soil, you can check out these two reports which outline the Soil Association’s campaign. The first, Living Soils, illustrates the huge number of functions that soils perform, the threats faced by our soils, and some of the solutions to these problems. The second report, Seven Ways to Save Our Soils, explores these solutions in more depth and sets out seven ways in which farmers and policymakers can take action to halt the degradation and loss of our soils.
The job of campaign and policy officers at Soil Association is not an easy one. Almost all of the issues they campaign on are matters for government policy. “We spend a lot of time meeting MPs, talking to other NGOs, scientists, businesses – making sure we are part of the policy-making process. For example, we submitted evidence to the first ever parliamentary inquiry into soil protection earlier this year, and we were later invited to give verbal evidence to that Committee. The resulting report, which was submitted to the Government, endorsed all of our key recommendations and reflected our major concerns.”A lot of the changes they are calling for – whether soil protection or healthy, nutritious food for school children – aren’t necessarily achieved by a piece-by-piece approach.
When asked about the struggles facing the Soil Association when sharing their message with the general public, Georgia has a realistic yet optimistic outlook:
“We live in an age where we are increasingly overloaded by information and bad news, and I think many people end up with a sort of compassion fatigue. How can an organisation persuade people to take action on one particular cause when we are constantly assailed with so many urgent causes or crises demanding our attention? In a broad sense, I think this is the biggest struggle for charities and NGOs – not just for the Soil Association.”
It can be difficult to communicate with many people about organic food and farming – as many people see organic as an expensive, even luxurious, food choice, and so they switch off. The aim is to change these perceptions, and to show people that organic isn’t a branding exercise; it represents a completely different way of producing food, which prioritises the environment, animal welfare, the countryside and our health, and it should be available to everyone.
“I’m pretty optimistic – I think there’s a growing awareness of the realities and causes of climate change, and the way food production is tied into it. I think people are starting to reconnect with where their food comes from, and the ethical and environmental implications of the way we consume food.”
It seems that people are starting to think more about the ethical and environmental impacts of eating cheaply produced meat and dairy, and slowly, attitudes are starting to change. Of course, this isn’t an easy process and nobody is expecting things to change overnight.
“At times, it seems that progress is slow, but things are definitely on the up. The market for organic is growing year on year in the UK and all around the world – there’s plenty of cause for optimism!”