The Soil Association was founded in 1946 by a group of far-sighted individuals who were concerned about the health implications of increasingly intensive agricultural systems following the Second World War. Their principle concerns were:
- The loss of soil through erosion and depletion
- Decreased nutritional quality of intensively produced food
- Exploitation of animals in intensive units
- Impact of large intensive farming system on the countryside and wildlife
For the first thirty years the Association was based on a farm in Suffolk and was primarily involved in basic research as well as building a membership base. The farm was divided into three units, one farmed using the new intensive techniques, one farmed traditionally and one with mixed system. At the end of this period the results were not as clear as had been hoped (hardly surprising since we still have a poor understanding of what we truly mean by health of land and food), however a much clearer understanding had been built up of how the best of old and new traditions in land husbandry could be combined, and so the first organic standards were compiled defining this system.
In 1967, the first Soil Association standards were drawn up. Ultimately they stated that the basis for the success of any organic enterprise is the creation and sustenance of a living soil. "The use of, or abstinence from, any particular practice should be judged by its effect on the well-being of the micro-organic life of the soil, on which the health of the consumer ultimately depends." This is still true today.
During the 70s there was beginning to be a demand from certain consumers and farmers for a system to show that food had been produced to the Soil Association standards. The certification system set up in 1973 is now used to provide an independent audit and tracking system from the individual field through to the final packing. About 80% of UK organic food is certified by the Soil Association.
In the mid-1980s a number of supermarkets began to stock organic food and this (combined with Pat and Tony Archer from the Radio Four series becoming organic) brought a new credibility to the movement. However the numbers of organic farmers remained small until the launch in 1995 of the Organic Aid Scheme of aid from the government to help farmers through the difficult conversion process of 2 to 5 years. Numbers of employees at the Soil Association then grew rapidly. Organic land in the UK now accounts for nearly 4% of agricultural land. Organic farmers now receive on-going support in recognition of the environmental benefits they deliver and this is encouraging more farmers to manage their land organically.
The demand for organic food is increasing every year. About three quarters of organic food is currently sold through supermarkets. However over the last few years the amount of organic food sold through box schemes, farmers' markets and independent shops has been growing quickly as more people become concerned about freshness and food miles.