I spent much of last week at the True Cost of Food Accounting conference and I’m still absorbing all that I learnt. You can see a lot more about it by following this link (http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/true-cost-accounting-in-food-and-farming-2/), my presentation will be on slide share (http://www.slideshare.net/CCRI/externatilies-socialreed).
Part of this debate is inspired by the limited impact of organic farming and food on the food system. Many people don’t view certified organic food as a strategy but rather what organic food is about. In the history of the organic food and farming movement certifying and selling organic food is the second strategy that the movement has used. The first was to run a research farm and try to prove experimentally that organic food and farming was superior.
Much of the discussion reminded me of the debate that took place when the organic movement transitioned between strategies in the early 1970s. Since 1946 the Soil Association had been trying to convince people of the virtues of organic food largely through scientific experimenting and argument, by the late 1960s it was becoming apparent that this way of advancing the arguments for organic food and farming was not winning the discussion. In part this was because of the huge cost and effort of running an experimental farm, then the problems of the science itself – could one farm really provide the proof that was necessary? In the meantime many of those involved in the movement were retiring and a few were dead, after a lifetime of campaigning that had started in the 1930s.
By the early 1970s the Soil Association was a fairly small and marginal organisation but it had attracted to it some of the leading environmental thinkers of the day. Fritz Schumacher (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._F._Schumacher) was its President, with its vice-President was Barry Commoner http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barry_Commoner) and the editorial team (Michael Allaby http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Allaby and Robert Allen) around the Association’s magazine were producing a magazine called ‘The Ecologist’ founded by Edward Goldsmith (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Goldsmith). Between them this group wrote many of the key books of environmentalism – Schumacher ‘Small is Beautiful’ (1973), Commoner ‘The Closing Circle’ (1971), and Goldsmith, Allen and Allaby – ‘A Blueprint for Survival’(1972).
This success was ahead of them, as were many disputes and disagreements, but Schumacher faced the task of rallying the Soil Association and changing its strategy, in a speech to the Soil Association in 1971 he said:
“In spite of many experiences to the contrary, the world is ruled by ideas and not by vested interests. Vested interests are troublesome but they too are rule by ideas” (Schumacher 1971).
The debate was not between generations or factions but rather competing ideas of how to advance in the face of a resilient opposition and urgent environmental problems.
I was reminded of this as I listened to the debate and watched the tweets on #taconf, that a similar discussion was being held. It is clear that in many conversations about the food system that the corporations that have such a hold on the growing, processing and marketing of so many food commodities have little heed for the problems caused by their actions, although it is clear that in their long term planning they cannot ignore the consequences entirely. Yet, to oppose their dominant way of accounting for success, a simple measure of profit and assumption of ever-continuous growth is difficult but not impossible. The debate started at the True Costing Accounting Conference suggests that a challenge to the dominant way of reckoning the importance of food is possible, but it will take more time and debate.