How Best To Change The System?

Chioggia beetroot
Two halves of the whole

The resignation of four of the Soil Association’s Trustees last month has got me thinking about an age-old question: how best to change the staus quo? The reasons for the resignation of the council members (Joanna Blythman, Lynda Brown, Pat Thomas and Andrew Whitley) seems to be a disagreement in policy over how best to spread the message of organics (one particular bone of contention was differing views of homeopathy in organic animal husbandry – personally I’m not keen on or convinced by the idea of homeopathy, but I do know a number of farmers who swear by it as a tool for animal care, and as a veg grower, who am I to tell them they’re mistaken?). As a relative outsider (I’m not certified organic, and don’t know any of the parties involved well), it seems that there are some specific committee issues going on; but these echo a wider concern about how best to change the system, ie conventional agriculture and our food system as a whole. I’d hope that everyone involved in the council would agree that organic methods and approaches are ‘best’ overall, in terms of the environment, health, equality, ethics and sustainability. So the two opposing views are how to spread the word.

Should we: a) change it from within, accepting small changes in the wider system towards our position as successes, adopting conventional tools along the way such as selling in supermarkets in the hope that we’ll reach more people and change their thinking (and hoping meanwhile that the system we are trying to change doesn’t change us and our values in the process); or b) stick stoutly to our principles, hoping to effect change in a Ghandi-style, of being the change, and placing faith in humanity that people will come to realise that our way is the correct way, and admire the fact that we haven’t compromised our values, and follow us in the end. I suppose the main problem is, when is the end? When do we know which of these routes is the winner or loser; if we’re following one route, how can we know it definitely won’t work, and switch tack? Does route a) imply a lack of faith in humans, that we’ll never achieve perfection, so best get some pragmatic results that might help a bit? Is route b) too optimistic in humankind’s ability to recognise the ‘right’ way and stop destroying itself?

If you disect the word ‘organic’ or try and convey what it means to people, you always start with the soil, and of practices involved in being organic (rotations, natural fertilisers such as manures and ground cover, no artificial inputs, ethical treatment of workers and animals etc). So unpacking these elements and spreading these ideas does seem to be a good plan; but surely they only really make sense and have much of an inpact on the food chain, animals and the environment if all the elements are used together, rather than cherry-picked individually. I would like to think that once a conventional farmer or food system type starts thinking about or implementing one of these issues however, that all the other facets will seem obvious, and become a natural journey to complete organic-hood. Therefore perhaps route a) is actually the most optimistic of the two routes after all: a belief in the common sense of humans, that once they hear about and look at one issue, everything else will naturally just fall into place, and of course all the details of organic farming become the norm and inevitable consequence. Either way, both sides have legitimate points, and it’s a shame that a path couldn’t be forged, using the best of both. I hope this doesn’t lead to a over-pragmatising of the Soil Association’s policy now, so that some elements of the organic message are lost in the desire to make some headway in the conventional world. Mind you, something has to be done, and that right speedily; so maybe a slight change across the board is better than no change at all. Oh look, I’m back to where I started…

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