I am an independent researcher and writer, currently holding honorary research posts at the University of Leicester and the University of Reading, and a leading authority on the history of the organic food and farming movement in Britain.
After taking degrees in Philosophy and European Literature at the University of East Anglia, I taught English for 24 years; firstly at H.M. Borstal, Feltham, in Middlesex, and then in a Further Education college in West Sussex.
My interest in organic history arose unexpectedly in the early 1980s. One day I bought on spec a secondhand copy of a book by the ruralist and topographer H. J. Massingham, called The Wisdom of the Fields. Many years later, my doctoral supervisor Professor Ted Collins mused sceptically: “That’s the sort of title that either turns you on or it doesn’t”. But in fact it was the content which appealed to me, with its descriptions of the variety and plenitude of mixed farming; and so I started to explore Massingham’s other works and then the writings and ideas of his associates.
In 1986 I sent an article on Massingham to Resurgence magazine, and this proved a timely submission. The editor Satish Kumar had recently visited Eve Balfour, doyenne of the organic movement, and he commissioned me to edit an anthology of writings by the movement’s pioneers. This was published by Green Books as The Organic Tradition, in 1988.
With conditions in the FE sector deteriorating rapidly thanks to the Conservative government’s removal of colleges from local authority control in 1993, I decided to undertake a part-time doctorate at the University of Reading, building on my knowledge of the organic movement’s history. By 1998 it was clear that the demands of my job were endangering the completion of my thesis, and at the end of that year I gambled on finding enough part-time work to enable me to survive while I pursued research. I had uncovered much material which had been completely forgotten, and which gave a very different, and intriguing, perspective on the organic movement from the conventionally accepted view. These discoveries could not be allowed to go to waste, and in 2000 I graduated, the examiners judging my thesis (The Natural Order: Agriculture, Society and Religion in Britain, 1924-1953) to be “outstandingly good”.
I was fortunate in that Floris Books, for who in 1996 I had edited a collection of writings by the philosopher John Macmurray, were interested in publishing a book based on my thesis: this appeared in 2001 entitled The Origins of the Organic Movement. It described the agricultural, social and religious context from which the movement emerged during the 1930s and ‘40s, and provoked much discussion about the extent to which there was continuity between the movement’s early days and its growth from the 1970s onwards.
Once Origins had appeared, it was a natural progression to consider researching the period from 1945 to the point, around the mid-1990s, when the organic movement became more high-profile and consumer-oriented. What had happened during the apparently quiet period of the 1950s and ‘60s, and how had the younger generation who came to the fore following the oil crisis of the mid-1970s related to their elders and then displaced them? Without adequate funding it would be difficult to find out, but I was fortunate to receive support from the Soil Association (with no strings attached), and from certain private individuals.
The 50 years from 1945 onwards proved as fascinating as the earlier decades had been. It became clear that many gifted and dedicated figures had helped the movement survive during a long period of struggle, and that their efforts deserved to be remembered. Many of them were still alive, and it was important to preserve their memories, so I travelled a good deal to record interviews and, where possible, ensure that archival papers were preserved. I interviewed farmers, growers, doctors and scientists; people who had worked for the Soil Association, the Pioneer Health Centre, Working Weekends on Organic Farms, the Biodynamic Agricultural Association and the Organic Growers’ Association. Though most of my research inevitably involved sitting and reading the various journals and the many books which the organic movement had produced, this task was lightened by the pleasure of meeting many interesting and hospitable members of the movement. To me at least, these people who committed themselves to the organic cause, often at personal and financial cost, and with their wide range of knowledge and experience, are considerably more interesting than the wealthy celebrities who, regrettably, so often provide the public face of today’s organic movement.
It became evident that a great deal of valuable work and thought was being ignored or forgotten. Many former activists with much wisdom were potential resources of guidance which were not being drawn upon. Ideas which had been eloquently expressed and passionately debated disappeared and had to be laboriously rediscovered only twenty years or so later. Awareness of the organic movement’s history and its prominent personalities should be a means of reducing such wasted effort, and of providing a perspective on the movement’s current priorities. There is a wealth of material waiting to be unearthed.
The fruits of my research were published in 2011 in The Development of the Organic Network. Together with The Origins of the Organic Movement, it provides what can reasonably be described as the most comprehensive study of the British organic movement to appear so far; though there is much work still to be done.
From 1995 to 2013 I was a regular columnist for the Soil Association magazine Living Earth. The column, with its historical perspective, came about quite by chance and somehow managed to survive various changes of editor. In 2008 I joined the editorial board of Mother Earth, which the Association’s then-Director Patrick Holden had revived. Holden saw its purpose as supplementing the consumerism of Living Earth and the technical advice of Organic Farming with a more philosophical approach and in-depth analysis. The Soil Association is currently reviewing the future of Mother Earth, with the intention of making it more centrally controlled, and I resigned from the editorial board in December 2013. I now write historical features for The Organic Grower, journal of the Organic Growers’ Alliance.
In the autumn of 2012 I was offered funding by a charitable trust promoting positive health, and am now engaged in a research project looking at the history of initiatives which have tried to embody this approach (see Current Research).