At last week’s annual Oxford Real Farming Conference, 1,800 attendees discussed everything from spirituality to land reform, and details of organic policy and practice.
Listening to a talk on the challenge of finding peat-free growing media for organic plants, I found myself grateful to the patient boffins who work quietly, and often with little thanks, on the fine details which give iterative improvement in the practices, definitions and regulations that make organic farming work.
Arguably, organic farming has its roots in the 1940s, with a group of far-sighted upper-class eccentrics. By the time I sowed my first leeks in the 80s, organic was a movement with inspiring, if still fringe, annual gatherings, driven by a common desire to farm better – with heated discussion about what that meant, but no legal definition. Certification was voluntary, as was sharing the homegrown weed.
By 2000, there were UK, European and international standards, with legal definitions; the work of those patient specialists, in particular a quiet man known as Herbi. Organic standards start with aspirations, which are broken down into regulations detailing which practices and inputs are permitted, which can be used under specific extenuating circumstances, and which are banned.
The Soil Association’s regulations are a dry document, but I am immensely grateful for its existence. It enables you to support us; Riverford would not be here if you had to depend on my uncorroborated promises. I would never argue that organic is the whole, or only, solution to our food and farming problems; in a diverse, complex world, nothing could be. But it is more specific and less flawed than anything else.
I was on a conference panel discussing the coexistence, differences, and similarities of organic and regenerative farming when I lost my rag and had to apologise. All I want to say here is: the standards for organic are categoric, but when someone says that your lunch is “regeneratively grown”, ask them what that means, and don’t settle for vagaries. In particular, ask if they are happy with the widespread use of the herbicide glyphosate and fossil-fuel-derived fertilisers.
I wholeheartedly support the principles advocated by the regen movement; I am just concerned by the vagueness and lack of intellectual rigour or common standards in their application. But perhaps I am too impatient – the same could be said of those early organic pioneers.
For more on regenerative farming: