Organic Agriculture


(First published in the Organic Grower, journal of the Organic Growers Alliance)

The truth may be inconvenient, but organic certification is doing more harm than good.  If we’d like organic certification to do good then the status quo is not an option.  Here are some current effects of organic certification –

1) The evacuation of town centres by provision of an organic dispensation to shop in super markets and retail parks.

2) The erosion of the efforts of those who’d revive convivial and resilient economies.  I include members of the transition town movement, trades-people and proper-shop-keepers, those selling in farmers’ markets and street markets and those who’d seek out such activities, but find their village/corner shop closed and their organically-evolved town centre deserted.

I propose that we find a way for the Soil Association symbol to become a pilgrim’s cockle shell, to sign the way towards a convivial and resilient economy.  It may lead people step by step from a dependency on ring roads, super markets and retail parks supplied by the great corporations and towards a more self-determined, commonly-determined and morally-determined settlement of economies inside their ecologies.  In this it would be side-by-side with the transition town movement, commons movements, new economics movements, alternative energy movements and social justice movements.

Bringing moral endorsement to an amoral market by consumerist labelling does not improve the market.  Morality is invisible to amorality.  The morality implicit in organic and fair trade produce does not make the super market a better place.  On the contrary, it kills the morality, but authenticates the super market brand.  It also contributes to the size of the super market, while diminishing the size of markets such as proper shops and market squares.

Definition: Organic – method which gains efficiency by imitating the cyclic behaviours of organisms.  It cannot define a state, such as a pack of food on a shelf – or its health qualities.  It defines the method.

Likewise, cultures (civilisations) are not states to be protected.  They are also methods.  They are what we do.  That a culture emphasises the state of its achievement is a symptom of decadence – one which has historically preceded collapse.  I think that the Soil Association has entered its decadent phase – protecting its state and achievement – even its brand (its flag).  It has begun to celebrate the health-giving properties (the state) of organically-grown food, more than it explores organic methods of production.  Meanwhile organic methods hold answers to both resource-depletion and climate change.

Since certification is doing more harm than good, we could abandon certification altogether and become a forum with new liberty for campaigning on soil-quality, resource depletion and agricultures as a whole – bearing in mind that the greatest city is only ever an emergent property of sea and soil and that every trade has emerged from the efficiencies of the labours of fields.  After all, organically-grown food is ordinary food, without definable qualities – while pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and so on are present in specific quantities and also have documented effects – for instance, the killing of insects, fungi and plants.

More ambitiously, we could hoist the cockle shell as a way-mark for economies to shuffle towards a symbiosis with their ecologies by organic methods.  That road will be full of compromise, mistakes, successes and failures.  Even though it may not be possible to define precisely enough, I think it remains the best road.  It is the best because of those very human and flexible compromises.  It is the road followed by Don Quixote.

Following that road:

Firstly, I speak of the Soil Association.  Other certifiers will continue the status quo.  Consequently, Soil Association licensees will still be able to supply pack-houses, abattoirs and factories, which supply super markets, but the produce will not bear the Soil Association logo.  Those seeking Soil Association produce will have to look for it in proper shops and market squares.  Farmers who have no markets but super markets will continue to supply them and shoppers who have nothing but super markets nearby, may still find organically-grown produce there (bearing other logos).

The Soil Association cockle shell will be a way mark of transition towards more resilient economies – people may find it and sometimes not.  It will be part of a step by step process of evacuating what can no longer be (fossil-fuelled and bio-fuelled economies) and of settling within what can remain.

Where no Soil Association logo can be found, people will ask why? – and then how can we rectify it?  Absence or not of renewable energy supplies asks the same questions.  The limits to what can be bought with a local currency also ask the same – How can we bring more economic activity within our currency community?

Withdrawal of Soil Association licenses from pack-houses, abattoirs and factories which supply super-markets should in many cases be obvious and easy – but what are we de-certifying? – Scale? Centralisation? Resource-use? Food miles? The state? – bearing in mind that we certify methods, not states.

The current compromise (we are already compromised) is that organic methods are verified in the field, but that an audit trail follows the produce to market to maintain its original integrity.  Even though all parts of the distribution chain must receive organic licenses, there is no requirement for the chain to follow organic methods.  In effect it has become a consumerist system of backward audits from point of sale (state) to point of production (method).  It re-enforces the state of a pack of food more than the method of producing it.  This is further emphasised by Soil Association advertising campaigns which focus more on the state (of health) of an “organic” product and less on the method of production.  Tragically states achieve nothing, while methods achieve everything.

Since the process of transition to a “sustainable” culture will be one of many trials and many errors, we should be unashamed of “woolly” definitions of which methods do and which don’t fit organic standards.  Moreover, de-certification of super markets is a political act and a campaigning Soil Association can make the most of that opportunity.  How do we begin to frame a definition of what is an organic method?

I suggest that a method begun with organic intent, but which then fails in some way remains as an organic technique – human error is inherent in all techniques.

A method without organic intent, such as a distribution/procurement system, designed for car use and centralised procurement – ring roads, retail parks and so on cannot be “organic”.

In this we have no need to considered scale at all – a village/town/city co-operative could be large in turnover, while maintaining an organic intent.  Similarly an auction house for the central distribution of fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, cheeses and so on is an ancient and organically-evolved system, which can also be a large one, which maintains an organic intent.  It can be an egalitarian system for the buying and selling of very many smaller producers and shop-keepers.  Traditionally, auction houses, market halls and squares have been held in common.  (All that is funded by taxation from nuclear submarines to schooling is held in common by the commoners of the particular realm – local or national)

If we consider scale, food-miles and so on, then we must decide on a point of exclusion.  Move an inch on either side of that point and we become either included or excluded.  In consequence, I don’t think we should consider scale.

The way out from an unsustainable way of life is step by step towards a better one.  The Soil Association symbol could encourage that journey.  I may wish to sell my produce in my local market town and my surpluses by canal and then by sailing ship for export.  If my market town is deserted (as most are) then I will have failed from the start.  Of course, it is also unlikely that I will find a sail trader moored at the quay.  However both these situations can (and must) change and the absence of the Soil Association cockle shell both at the quay and in the market square will politicise the fact.  The additional fact that Soil Association policy is aloof from (client confidential) distribution is a tragedy.  (Promotion of CSAs is no dispensation – They are promoted because they threaten no client interests.)

Meanwhile, to survive I must travel (in my white van) to distant and more busy markets, while maintaining the intent to abandon those markets when more appropriate ones begin to swell.  They swell unpredictably in common with others – some to buy, others to sell….

We cannot wait for change, but must create it.  My over-travelled white van may be less efficient than the distribution system of Tesco in the retail park, but my white van travels towards a better future, in which I can eventually scrap the van altogether, while Tesco preserves a perennial anachronism.

So I propose that organic intent is the yardstick by which we are presented the pilgrim’s cockle shells for our hats.

We work for the common good and so common values are inherent in what we do – all methods have consequence and so must have a moral.  If organic standards defend a state of enclosure and erode the vitality of method-making, then we must abandon them.  Property (enclosure) defines our right to amorality.  Commons define our right to responsibility.  After all, the greater part of every economic transaction remains as trust.  Trust lives on the common.  Get precisely-definable teeth into that….

Organic standards are close to those of the guilds of the trades.  They define the responsibilities of commoners to maintain the common – commons of air, water, soil, biomass, biodiversity and so on.  They are fundamentally opposed to the enclosures (the property rights) of consumerism.  In short our probity, ingenuity and dexterity have been invaded and enclosed.  Our battle is no less than reclamation of the commons.

These decades are probably the most epic of all history.  We should be honoured.  It will be easy to de-certify the super-market-tied pack-houses and abattoirs.  I include Waitrose and the Co-op as super markets.  In spite of their more egalitarian ownership structures, they are as ruthless in the market place as the others.  It will be less easy to define the muddle of all the rest.  Plainly, air freight is not a transition to something better….

Objections will arise.  For instance, some farms supply super markets with their “farm branded” produce.  I suggest that they find other certifiers.  Though their pack-house or butchery is relatively small in scale, we don’t consider scale, but intent – their intent is to re-enforce the structures of ring road and retail park.  Again, we can forget measurable states and consider the method – and its consequence – and then the moral of the consequence.

Let’s embrace the muddle.  With most jobs that seem insurmountable, the only way is to begin.  Methods are revealed inside our mistakes.  Without the mistakes we don’t find the methods.

We are currently in an organic muddle.  Objections to change are either satisfaction with an achieved state of enclosure, or otherwise trepidation at a seemingly impossible task.  The satisfied are either those that have been brought into Soil Association management “from industry”, or those seduced by brand rhetoric.  We must sack them.  With regards to trepidation, perhaps we should focus on drought, flood, storm, famine, mass-migration, resource wars….  Again, with regards to satisfaction… ‘Nuf said.

Here’s an ancient truth – There’s not a new thought under the sun, but methods are added by generations – new tools for new circumstance.  States kill methods.  Let’s kill the organic state and liberate the organic method – your methods may prove mine obsolete.  No matter.   Unless we do something, nothing will happen.  Nothing happens like this: four hundred parts per million and rising…..

3 Responses to Organic Agriculture

  1. So many interesting points and challenges to the existing state of things and hopes arise in this piece…. Feel like I need to get to grips with the whole thing….


    • bryncocyn says:

      Thanks Annie. Yes – epic times. I think a loose self-doubting grip in the face of adventures ahead may be a good thing. Let the adventure (reactions to our actions) teach us as we go. The Twentieth Century has passed on a legacy of chaos by rigid application of cult ideas – of progress, capitalism, communism. monetarism, consumerism, neoliberalism… The craziest (& commonly accepted) cult is that ideas can replace resources. Another is that today’s children can be better educated than yesterday’s. That one species can change Earth’s atmosphere is a chastening thought. So a better beginning may be from a position of shame, then humility – actually the best emotional state in which to receive inspiration for new tools, techniques and ways of living… Trouble is – as we’ve both found, (& history notes) aggressively-projected voices quickly find an audience… “& the worst are full of passionate intensity”


  2. alexheffron says:

    Very, very interesting. I hadn’t given this much conscious thought before but it speaks to me. I’d completely concur, the only sustainable, ‘organic’ method is to abandon the super highways of the Oil Age and go back to the market town model. Does having organic food in the supermarket legitimise the supermarket as being partly ‘sustainable’? Does it draw people away from a connection with their farmer and towards the blindingly artificial lights of the parasitic supermarkets? If people couldn’t buy their organic fare from a supermarket it would surely support the development of farmer’s markets (as one option, like you say proper shop-keepers and genuinely co-operative supermarkets shouldn’t be excluded) and a more local, sustainable economy. And another thought, touching on something you say above – when you consider the colossal infrastructure required to run supermarkets how can that be good for the environment and good for our health?

    Liked by 1 person

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