The Soil Association was founded in 1946 by a group of farmers, scientists and nutritionists who observed a direct connection between farming practice and plant, animal, human and environmental health.
The catalyst was the publication of The Living Soil by Lady Eve Balfour (pictured) in 1943. The book presented the case for an alternative, sustainable approach to agriculture that has since become known as organic farming.This article is from the summer 2003 edition of Living Earth, the Soil Association's award-winning membership magazine. It was written by Philip Conford author of 'The Origins of the Organic Movement'.
To the general public, the Soil Association’s name may seem narrowly focused: surely soil matters only to farmers and gardeners? The answer is no, it matters to everyone who eats and all who are concerned with health. The reasons are given in the book which inspired the founding of the Soil Association, Lady Eve Balfour ’s The Living Soil.
First published in 1943, The Living Soil appeared at a time when proposals for a national health service were being debated. Eve Balfour drew together material from different sources suggesting that food quality influences health and itself depends on the health of the soil in which it is grown. Her work aroused such interest that in 1946 the Soil Association was established to collate further evidence and bring together those who felt her argument rang true.
Farming had always been Eve Balfour’s vocation. Born into an aristocratic family (her uncle was the prime minister, Sir Arthur Balfour), she was among the first female agricultural students at the University of Reading when she started in 1915. Four years later she took over a farm at Haughley in Suffolk, living in a caravan on the wages of a farm worker. She not only kept it viable through the inter- war agricultural depression, but her energy was such that she also found time to write detective novels and play saxophone in a dance-band.
Her conversion to organic principles occurred in 1938, when she read Viscount Lymington’s book Famine in England. Through it she discovered the ideas of Sir Albert Howard and Sir Robert McCarrison on the relationship between the quality of nutrition and the health of the soil. She decided to use her farm for a long-term experiment to discover whether organic methods of cultivation produced crops superior to those fed with chemical fertilisers. War delayed these plans, though the enormously increased use of agricultural chemicals in wartime made the need for the experiment even more pressing.
Lady Eve was not an original thinker but her skilful synthesis of evidence from other disciplines commanded respect even from opponents, some of whom considered The Living Soil a distinct threat to the new fertiliser industry. Publication also brought her into contact with fellow thinkers like the founders of the Peckham Experiment, many of whom came together in 1946 to form the Soil Association through a shared concern for the nation’s poor health.
During the 1950s Lady Eve promoted the Soil Association and ran the Haughley experiment but eventually financial problems caused the experiment’s demise. She described it as “exploratory not dogmatic,” but its termination meant that a comprehensive comparison between organic and non-organic farming remains unmade in this country.
As the environmental movement burgeoned in the 1960s, a new generation of Soil Association members, rightly or wrongly, considered Lady Eve rather autocratic. Although she faded into the background, her central importance in organic history is undeniable. In 1988 when she was interviewed on BBC Radio Four’s Food Programme, her vigour was still remarkable. Shortly before her death she received public recognition when awarded the OBE.
Eve Balfour’s spirit lives on at the Soil Association, and through the energy and commitment that underpin its work. She never set out to form a movement but without her the Soil Association would not be fighting today for the cause of healthy food grown in a fertile soil.
The Soil Association has developed organic standards and now works with consumers, farmers, growers, processors, retailers and policy makers.
But at its heart our mission remains the same - to create an informed body of public opinion about these links and to promote organic agriculture as a sustainable alternative to intensive farming methods.
We are the UK's leading environmental charity promoting sustainable, organic farming and championing human health. See The Soil Association
In Suffolk we’re delighted to have Maple Farm Kelsale
, a small family owned farm that converted to organic farming methods a few years ago, and today produces a range of quality organic vegetables and cereals, as well as honey and organic eggs.
See their display for more details Maple Farm Kelsale
Do you buy organic produce from Suffolk? What's your favourite shop? Please let us know your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org
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