Knowing Your Food

Most people have little idea where food comes from, but when they do, their expectations are shattered. Once they realise the huge contrast between organic farming and factory farming, they usually forget about price differences and become committed organic consumers, end of story. If that's what it takes to win people to the organic cause, how do we get the message across?

In the 1960s and 70s my brother and I had a natural foods store called Ceres Grain Shop on London's Portobello Road. Many of our customers turned up every Thursday morning for the delivery of freshly harvested vegetables brought down from Lincolnshire by John Butler. You could literally see the radiant aura of robust good health in his cabbages. He wrote for our magazine, Seed, The Journal of Organic Living, and his monthly column, Changing Seasons, enabled our 25,000 readership to get inside the head of the man who grew their vegetables. The combination of tasting the difference and understanding the underlying philosophy made them core organic consumers.

Next door in Ceres Bakery we baked bread made with flour that we milled from wheat grown by Stuart Pattison and we put up pictures of him and his horse-drawn plough working the land on which he grew the wheat for our bread. This was on the Portobello Road in the 1970s where we were in competition with 30 fruit and vegetable stallholders as well as cheap bakers, and when the yuppification of Notting Hill was just a glint in the property developers' eyes. Our customers vacuumed up the organic vegetables and queued into the street for organic wholemeal bread.

Those encounters gave me a profound faith in the wisdom of the buyer - once people are offered the link to the producer and are given the opportunity to make an informed choice, a goodly number will override considerations of price and convenience, and plug into the higher energy of being properly connected with their food source. When they do, they become a force to be reckoned with.

Last month the 2004 Soil Association National Conference's theme was Reconnecting the Public with Agriculture. The question was: how can we reawaken a passion for good food and good husbandry in the public? (ew: from programme). Saturday afternoon focused on the soil, the organic farmer's prize asset - and the very foundation of human health (programme). In the Soil, Compost and Health workshop, soil scientists produced evidence about the importance of a balanced soil using compost and other soil-building techniques. Their measure of success was improvements in plant health, significant reductions in vets' bills and increases in animal fertility. That translates, in human terms, into healthier food for people: lower NHS costs and less business for infertility clinics. Healthy soil also produces plants that heal quickly - slash a compost-grown cucumber along its sides and the gaps will close with minimal scars. Do the same to one grown with chemicals instead of compost and it goes rotten. How much proof do people need?

The Soil Association believes that seeing is believing. That is why they have a network of working organic farms that are open to the public. Last year 300,000, including legions of schoolchildren, visited. A trip to an organic farm is often all it takes to see that the soil is the foundation of all plant, animal and human health.

For some people what they see with their own eyes is not enough - they want scientific proof. One conference speaker was Paul Hepperly, research manager of Rodale Institute in America. He reported that their long-term comparison of 22 years between organic and chemical farming systems demonstrated the superiority of organic farming. Both nutritional content - and yields - were higher in the organic crops. It all came down to the soil. Hepperly berated the chemical farming system: "We've been mining soils rather than building them."

People frequently suggest that the Soil Association changes its name to 'The Organic Society' or something equally zippy. Our founders had great foresight - the answer lies in the soil and once people understand that, all the spurious questions about whether to choose organic or not go out the window.