To create real change in the world sometimes you have to compromise

Last week four Soil Association trustees resigned from the charity accusing it of lacking conviction on organic. But to create real change you sometimes just have to compromise, says Craig Sams

In 1946 two pioneering women, Eve Balfour and Dr. Innes Pearce, founded the Soil Association. Eve was a farmer who developed organic principles by creating healthy soil on her farm in Essex. Dr. Innes Pearce ran the Peckham Project in one of London’s most deprived neighbourhoods and showed that good nutrition led to healthier families, better academic achievement by kids and fewer men deserting their wives. The Soil Association’s founding principle was that a healthy diet, supported by nutrient-rich organic food, would change the world for the better.

In 1966, the doctors, dentists, nutritionists and veterinarians who were members felt the Soil Association had become too farmer-oriented and resigned to set up the McCarrison Society, named after Sir Robert McCarrison, whose 1926 book on nutrition and health inspired both Balfour and Innes Pearce. This was a sad moment as it marked the divorce between the advocates of healthy soil and the advocates of healthy eating. A year later we founded our macrobiotic business Yin Yang Ltd (to become Harmony Foods and later Whole Earth) which brought together, at a commercial level, organic food and healthy eating.

Happily the Soil Association has rediscovered its roots. At a conference in 2002 titled ‘Education, Education, Education’ I gave the keynote speech that highlighted the few examples at the time of how better school food could improve kids’ behaviour and academic performance. Then the Soil Association, with Garden Organic, Focus on Food and the Health Education Trust got a £17 million Lottery grant to make it happen.

The grant money was well spent. Not only have over 4500 Schools enrolled with the project, and started to teach children to cook and grow and also taken them to visit farms, but the Soil Association Catering Mark has been developed too.This starts with the Bronze standard (75% freshly prepared, no GMOs, no hydrogenated fat, free range produce). Then they graduate to the Silver standard (a proportion of organic, a larger proportion of locally sourced, Fairtrade, MSC, LEAF). Then they go for Gold which takes it to even higher levels. The migration is only ever one way, from Bronze to Gold and the impact on organic suppliers is spectacular. The Gold holders are now asking the Soil Association for a Platinum category. More important is that schoolkids become aware of organic food, go home and challenge their parents. 950,000 school meals a day  are served with the Catering Mark and it’s now also improving food served in nurseries, hospitals, care homes, offices and industrial canteens. By this time next year there will be 2 million school meals a day served to the Catering Mark standard – half of all schoolkids in the UK. This all sounds pretty good to me and if Dr Innes Pearce were alive she would be punching the air with triumphant joy that her dream back in the 1930s and 1940s was finally being realised. And this is just the beginning. The Catering Mark is the fastest-growing activity of Soil Association Certification and is sucking in more and more organic food as the biggest national foodservice companies get behind it.

“We compromised on organic, we compromised on sugar-like sweeteners, we compromised on restaurant food (where organic regulations don’t apply). We never compromised on GMOs. We are winning because we were pragmatic. And how we’re winning!”

But concern about the Catering Mark is the main reason why four trustees resigned from the Soil Association Council at the beginning of December. They felt it was an ethical sell-out to allow non-organic food in meals that bore Soil Association approval. They were unhappy that the standards permitted organic food that was frozen or canned, as this was not ‘fresh’ even if it was ‘freshly prepared’

I got into the world of organic food from the standpoint of the macrobiotic diet. We ate natural and wholegrain and organic whenever possible, which wasn’t often in 1967. But we mapped out a route that helped us get to where we are today. The reason the marvellous macrobiotic diet that has been the mainstay of my health and happiness for five decades never went mainstream was because it got hijacked by people who were rigid and restrictive. The macrobiotic guru and author of Zen Macrobiotics, Georges Ohsawa, was horrified to see this and just before he died he tried to correct this by writing that, thanks to macrobiotics he could enjoy whisky, chocolate and other taboo foods, as long as he did it in moderation. We compromised on organic, we compromised on sugar-like sweeteners, we compromised on restaurant food (where organic regulations don’t apply). We never compromised on GMOs. We are winning because we were pragmatic. And how we’re winning! The tide is turning. Finally clinicians are recognising that food is medicine and the Hospital Food Standards Committee have recommended Catering Mark as a scheme that can improve hospital food.

You might have missed it, but School Meals Week was in early November. The Minister of State for Education, David Laws MP, praised the Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark, commending it as a scheme that allows school leaders to choose caterers who are committed to providing school children with high quality, nutritious food. He said: “My message is: ‘Quality really matters’. This is our challenge for 2015. I would like to see all schools and their caterers holding – or working hard towards – a quality award like the excellent Catering Mark.” The evidence is compelling – kids at Catering Mark schools have better attendance rates, better academic performance and better understanding of food and nutrition, the key to avoiding obesity.

The three journalists and a baker who resigned from the Soil Association cited the Catering Mark as the main example of how the Soil Association has lost its way. If that’s what losing its way looks like then perhaps the Soil Association should ‘lose its way’ more often.