Lee Holdstock pictured whilst hosting an Organic experience day at Yeo Valley

There are several major milestones to celebrate this year and very soon I’ll be marking my 25th year of working for Soil Association Certification, an anniversary shared with the charitable partnership between Triodos Bank and the Soil Association.

In that time, Triodos Bank has donated well over £600,000 to our cause through the partnership, alongside sponsoring events and publications. They are our longest-standing charitable partner and share our vision of a world in harmony with nature and the climate.

Coincidentally, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of Soil Association Certification, which has prompted a bit of rummaging through the archives, reacquainting me with the truly amazing number of milestones and achievements the organisation can take credit for.

The roots of the Soil Association

Strictly speaking, Soil Association Certification is a subsidiary of the Soil Association and was established in 1973, but the story starts in 1946, when a group of luminaries and thinkers came together with common experiences gleaned both at home and in far-flung parts of the empire. What they had independently observed cemented their collective belief in the vital connection between the health of the soil and the health of people. After all, the word ‘human’ derives from the Latin ‘humus' – we are literally ‘of the soil’, a reality not lost on these pioneers. 

Historic image of lady on a tractor
Lady Eve Balfour, British organic farming pioneer, on a Ferguson tractor (circa. 1925)

They were also very concerned about the damage modern agricultural practices and the widespread adoption of synthetic agrochemistry might do to the health of the land and the people it sustained. This was the birth of the Soil Association.

Changing the farming industry for good

By the late 1960s, the Soil Association had set standards, clarifying what could be claimed and not claimed to be ‘organic farming’, with some additional rules on what level of further processing products could be subjected to while remaining organic.

For the authors of the first standards, it wasn’t just about excluding synthetics and pesticides, it was just as important to create a system that was balanced, healthy, and resilient, so it could exist in a closed loop, independent of the need for chemical inputs. This meant considering things like the treatment of livestock, or how a farmer might encourage wildlife to help control pests and disease.

With the arrival of the Soil Association Certification subsidiary in 1973, the body began to certify its very first farms and organic products from pioneers such as Aspall’s and Rachel’s Organic. With the symbol starting to appear on products, the Soil Association – a charity established to create ‘an informed body of public opinion’ – would enter a new phase.

Next would come not just rules, but impactful campaigns that have arguably shaped the market and certainly the food and farming policy space.

As far back as 1983, the organisation was campaigning extensively on the use of pesticides. This work led directly to a full ban on the use of the persistent and highly damaging pesticide, DDT. The Noughties and ‘teen years’ were no less progressive, bringing new, game-changing initiatives.

Not only did the Soil Association launch the Organic Works report (2006), sharing robust research on how much organic agriculture supports local economies, but we also published the Food for Life report (2003). With the help of Organix Brands, this groundbreaking piece of work revealed the shocking state of children's school meals and paved the way for the phenomenally successful Food for Life Partnership, which would improve over two million meals served every day in the UK.

2011 alone was a hugely important year, seeing both the launch of the Lazy Man of Europe report and the explosive Not in my Banger campaign. Having objected to a planning application for an appalling mega-piggery, the Soil Association led a campaign that would see us threatened by big libel lawyers. Whilst we felt strongly about the potential welfare and environmental impacts, we were facing pressure from people with a track record of suing broadsheet newspapers for exposing corporate irresponsibility. Suffice to say, the campaign saw 35,000 letters to MPs, and we lived to fight another day.

The future of organic

There are so many important moments when the Soil Association has represented the organic movement and stood up for what’s right. Today, the Soil Association remains committed to its original aim to keep citizens and those who manage the land informed and able to make better choices.

Whether highlighting the impact of excess nitrogen on the quality of the air we breathe or flagging the unhealthy nature of our dietary choices, the organisation remains committed to addressing the inextricably connected crises of climate, nature and health.

The challenge remains significant, and whilst organic still accounts for less than 2% of the food we eat, we need not feel helpless. Terrific progress has been made over the decades. Not only did the organic market experience its eleventh consecutive year of growth in 2022, but other sectors are changing too.

I'm confident that the passionate, innovative, and purposeful people I've met across the sectors and the years can continue to make a real difference

You can learn more about the Soil Association’s current campaigns and how you can support them on the Soil Association Website.