Local and Organic in A Global Food Economy --
Soil, Food Quality, and Health
Lawrence Woodward is the director of the Elm Farm Research Centre, in
Berkshire, UK, a world leader in organic agriculture research and education.
His topic is the relationship of soil quality to food quality, and the importance
for the organic movement to make this connection in the public’s mind. (Lawrence
Woodward has worked closely through the years with Hardy Vogtmann, whom some may
remember from MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer conference several years ago). Following is his presentation given at MOFGA's Spring Growth Conference 2005 titled: Local and Organic in a Global Food Economy: What is our role?
I was delighted to receive an invitation to attend and speak at the March 2005 Maine Organic
Farmers and Gardeners Association’s conference. Firstly because of all the good things I have heard over the years about your conferences and secondly because your organisation seems to be
steadfastly grassroots and genuinely organic, a rare and valuable thing in a sector that is
increasingly losing touch with or selling its soul. Also today’s topic is one of the most critical facing whatever is left of the organic movement. It is intrinsic to fulfilling any aspirations we have to spread the organic concept of health and it is vital to the wellbeing of our society and that of future generations for us to find and practice an alternative to the destructive and iniquitous spread of globalisation.
This conference posed the question – “Local and Organic in a Global Food Economy: What is our role? - As farmers, as consumers, as citizens? – What is our role? - Questioning what is
generally seen as the inevitability of globalisation is something you do not do in smart circles – in the UK at least. You are regarded as a “flat-earther” if you dare to mutter anything about possible alternatives. Any hint of the word “protect” – even if linked to food quality, health, dispossessed people, communities, equitable development – any hint, is beyond the pale in polite society.
My perspective of the global food economy is that we have to, in the first place and urgently,
develop an alternative to it. A locally based food economy is right for nutritional reasons, for development reasons, and for socio-economic reasons. But more than that, we have no choice if we wish to preserve anything that resembles a democratic and civilised society.
At the risk of being subtle: we live in world of finite and rapidly diminishing resources. Quite apart from being inequitable and a moral abomination, the global growth economy upon which we struggle to base our society is untenable. It is in fundamental conflict with the biological base of our planet and must be replaced as our civilisation's central organising principle.
Can such a dramatic statement be justified? I believe so. The threats posed by the depletion of hydrocarbon energy and climate change receive most attention but the depletion of water
reserves and loss of fertile soil are arguably as pressing – more so in some parts of the world. To
focus on the first two though:
Global warming is happening. The last decade was the warmest on record. Extreme Weather events
are occurring on an unprecedented scale. The polar icecaps are thinning at an unprecedented rate
Coral reefs are dying.
Man-made pollution is the most significant factor in global warming. CO2 emissions in the
atmosphere are at the highest levels ever recorded. There is now a consensus about the problem
across worldwide scientific opinion - other than in the Bush administration.
“All countries must accept that the case has been made. Continuing to deny the impact of human
activities on the environment may ultimately have catastrophic consequences for everyone on the
--Lord May, President of The Royal Society and former UK government Chief Scientist.
The IPCC says we need an immediate 40% reduction in climate relevant emissions to stabilise
global warming – see www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/005.htm for chapter and verse - to stop
the global growth economy dead in its tracks.
Not to worry though, the rundown of our energy supplies might help us!
It is clear that “business as usual” is not an option; the unfettered depletion of our natural resources
cannot continue. A major, I would argue fundamental, change in how we live our lives is absolutely
necessary, including of course how we feed ourselves.
The global food system is an integral part of the global economic system and is increasing in
volume and importance; for example, international food trade increased by 184% between 1968 and
1998. The annual UK imports of food and animal feed amounts to over 83 billion tonne-kilometres,
using 1.6 billion litres of fuel, resulting in 4.1 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. Between 1989 and
1999 there was a 90% increase in the road freight movement of agricultural and food products on
UK roads. This represents 28% of all goods transported and amounts to an estimated environmental
cost of £2.35 billion per year. The farming and food system produce some 22% of all UK CO2
So we have a food system that enables us to have food that is in season all the year round and in
theory at least gives access to an exotic choice. But as you can see with this traditional English
Sunday lunch we are also transporting staples around the globe; not because English farmers are
making so much money they can’t be bothered to produce such normal fare but because it’s cheaper
for the packers and retailers.
I would like to say that this was the conventional picture and things are different with the
organic sector. But I can’t.
This table lists imported organically certified products; together with miles, fuel used and carbon
emitted, that are found week in and week out on the shelves of UK supermarkets. It is hardly
different from the conventional picture.
We do have a government organic action plan, which I am involved with, and we are making
progress with increasing the sales of UK produced organic food – and of course there are an
increasing number of organic farmers who sell solely within their locality through box schemes and
farmers markets – but the vast majority of organic food in the UK is sold through supermarkets and
the mainstream food system; where food miles are an irrelevance, seasonality is marketing ploy and
the cost/price ratio is all that matters.
But of course that ratio does not include all the real costs; the external, environmental costs are
not included and are neither paid at the checkout nor deducted from the supermarket’s profits: they
are eventually paid though, by the environment and by the taxpayer.
One argument offered in support of organic farming is that the organic farmer covers these external
costs within the method of farming. Depending on the quality of the farming system – and there is
plenty of poor quality organic farming around – this is true to the farm gate. But after that varies
enormously with the distribution and retail system that follows; as we shall see from a very recent
I am grateful to Tim Lang and Jules Pretty for providing the material pre-publication so that I can
include it today. But first a health warning! Calculating these costs involves assumptions and
controversial judgement calls, nonetheless, the results can be interesting and useful.
It is clear then that for environmental reasons a food system based on organic and local food is good.
It is also good from a nutritional perspective. Vitamin C is susceptible to loss from harvest
onwards. Vitamin C losses in leafy vegetables are up to 18% 2hrs after harvest; 60% after 8hrs
and 90% after 24hrs
Vitamin A is also susceptible to loss over time even in good storage conditions - whilst Riboflavin
and Vitamin E are sensitive to light, oxygen and heat. Conventional nutritionists point out that such
losses are largely irrelevant because there are other sources of these vitamins in our diet. But the
point is that transporting many food products over time and distance is virtually guaranteed to
reduce nutritional quality.
I was asked to address the relationship of soil quality and food quality and health: and consider
the need to make this connection in the public mind. The pioneers of organic agriculture had no
doubt of the necessity to do this. Lady Eve Balfour, for example, wrote in her seminal book “The
Living Soil”, "My subject is food, which concerns everyone; it is the soil, which concerns everyone
- even if they do not realise it - and it is the history of certain recent scientific research linking these
three vital subjects."
She wanted this message to reach as she put it "the legislator, politician, voter, tax and rate -payer,
farmer, gardener, veterinary surgeon, doctor, sanitary inspector, public health authority, school
teacher, priest, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor - in fact, the Citizen".
This was a tall order back in the early 1940s but it is arguably more problematic in our urban,
suburban, globalised, sanitised, consumer-ised, pre-packed, shrink-wrapped, shrunk brained,
clichéd and disconnected modern world – where kids do not know that milk comes from cows, how
can they know the full significance of soil?
Here is a poem by the Liverpool poet Roger McGough that highlights the problem. It’s called
we’ve ignored each other for a long time
and I’m strictly an indoor man
anytime to call would be the wrong time
I’ll avoid you as long as I can
When I was a boy
We were good friends
I made pies out of you
When you were wet
And in childhood’s glorious
We just rough and tumbled together
We were very close
just me and you and the sun
the world a place for having fun
always so much to be done
I grew away from you
Of course you were still there
During my earliest sex-capades
When I rough and fumbled
Not very well after bedtime
But during my first pubescent winter
You seemed very wet and dirty
So I stayed indoors
And acquired a taste
For girls and clean clothes
we found less and less to say
you were jealous so one day
I simply upped and moved away
I still called to see you on occasions
But we had little now in common
And my visits grew less frequent
One cold bright April morning
Many years ago
A handful of you
Drummed on my father’s
at last it all made sense
there was no need for pretence
you said nothing in defence
And now just recently
While travelling from town to town
Past where you live
I have suddenly become aware
Of you watching me out there
Playing patience with the trees
we’ve avoided each other for a long time
and I’m strictly a city man
anytime to call would be the wrong time
I’ll avoid you as long as I can
A modern view of soil: something to play in, to build on, be buried in - and avoided because it’s
dirty. Although, maybe there is also a hint of recognition that there is ultimately an elemental
connection: a hint that might give us hope that all is not yet lost.
But there is certainly no recognition of the complexity, intricacy and sheer wonder of a living soil;
no recognition of the many living processes within soil; no recognition of, as the slide shows, that
the soil food web is directly connected to our own nutrition and wellbeing.
I want now to consider firstly, soil of itself and as representative of everything that makes up the
biological basis for our existence; secondly the relationship between soil fertility and food quality
and nutrition; and finally the place of soil in the holistic concept of health that underpins the organic
To start with, let us recognise that the driving force of our society, our civilisation, its organising
principle, is not the husbanding of primary resources but their exploitation in the pursuit of
Most of us now have only a distant relationship with the biological base of our planet. Yet those
primary resources and our relationship with them mainly through the provision and distribution of
food are ultimately the key to our wellbeing. Our history shows dramatically what happens
when man loses touch with or abuses those resources. An analysis of this is graphically
presented by Michael Crawford and David Marsh in their book “The Driving Force”, which is
subtitled "Food, Evolution and the Future".
Whilst it was the development of agriculture that spawned what we regard as the first civilisations,
its mismanagement and over exploitation was probably responsible for their collapse. Destruction
of tree cover and over grazing are thought to be the start of the process of desertification which
precipitated loss of soil fertility, nutritional collapse and climate change. These factors played a
major part in the destruction of the great Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures.
Aristotle, for example, noted some of the earliest examples of climate change " The same parts of
the earth are not always moist or dry, but they change according as rivers come into existence or dry
up. And so the relation of the land to sea changes too, and a place does not remain land or sea
throughout all time..."
Plato described the scene in his own day in Athens: " The Acropolis is quite bare of soil which was
washed away in one appalling night of flood....... The soil washed away from the highland in these
periodical catastrophes forms no deposit of consequence in other places, but is carried out and lost
in the deeps.....You are left with something like the skeleton of a body wasted by disease; the rich,
soft soil has all run away leaving the land nothing but skin and bone."
He contrasts this to an earlier period in Athenian history." But in those days the damage had not
taken place, the hills had high crests, the rocky plains of Phelleus were covered with rich soil and
the mountains were covered by thick woods. For some mountains which today will only support
bees produced not so long ago trees that when cut provided roof beams for huge buildings whose
roofs are still standing."
And most notably he sums up: "This, then, was the general nature of the country, and it was
cultivated with the skill you could expect from a class of genuine full-time agriculturists, with good
natural talents, an abundant water supply and a well-balanced climate."
This picture changed when the buoyant Greek society and culture moved into its expansionist
phase, disregarded its husbandry, and sought to push outward through trade and conquest.
The same story can be told of Rome, but even more dramatically. Rome began as a nation of
farmers but she pursued growth, trade and wealth beyond her own and Italy's boundaries. At the
height of her Empire, Rome was unable to feed herself. Grain was brought from as far away as
Spain and Britain and above all from North Africa. Half a million tons of grain a year were sent to
Rome from North Africa. But the farmers either knew little or had forgotten the principles of soil
husbandry and as trees and ground cover was cleared the topsoil and its fertile mineral supply was
washed away. Harvest failures became frequent.
Rome itself became full of unemployed people living on a dole of bread, olive oil and wine and it
was no longer possible for ordinary people to make a living off the land. More and more small
landowners found it impossible to pay their taxes and still keep a subsistence for themselves.
Increasingly they sold out to larger landowners until eventually most of the land was owned by a
few hundred families, who found it more profitable to put it into pasture and raise cattle -
commodity production for trade not food.
During the protracted struggle to hold on to Empire, Rome one by one lost her sources of supply.
She was hindered by the increasing difficulty of getting crops off the great North African wheat
fields as their top soils degenerated and harvests failed. The elaborate Roman engineering and
infrastructure of roads, aqueducts and storage tanks were no real substitute for a sound ecology.
Eventually Rome, having outstripped her resources, was severed from her food supplies by a simple
blockade of the Tiber and fell in a week.
Is this history or current affairs? What are the key characteristics in the decline and destruction of
these great civilisations? And are there any similarities with today?
Well, what about overstretched food supplies? In recent years the world's food stocks have fallen
to the lowest level on record - to 48 days supply, in comparison with the previous low of around 60
days; A projection of world food supply and demand over the next 35 years suggests a deficit of
around 600 million tons of grain on the world market, roughly the entire current grain consumption
of the United States and China, and about three times the total of world grain exports today .
"Deficit" is a polite word for starvation.
And what about overstretched water supplies? Some of the main grain-producing regions, such as
the US Southern Great Plains, the North China Plain and the Indian Punjab are dependant on
underground water reserves, which are now falling and in some regions are close to depletion. The
capacity of rivers to provide more water for irrigation, for instance in the Central Asian Republics
and the Colorado River Basin, is at or close to its limit, not least because of the increased demand
for water from towns and industry. There is a compelling view that one of the consequences of
global warming will be that grain-growing areas will suffer drought.
What about the loss of fertile land? The world grain growing area declined from 735 million
hectares (mh) in 1981 to less than 600 mh today; in China it has been reduced by one-tenth from its
1976 peak, and the current one per cent per annum fall is expected to continue for the foreseeable
future. All the industrialising countries are losing agricultural land rapidly; in Japan and South
Korea, it has fallen by one third since 1960 and 1977 respectively. Much of the agricultural land
which has so far been spared from urbanisation is subject to erosion and salination. Around 30 per
cent of irrigated land is estimated to suffer from moderate or serious erosion. A World Bank report
on four developing countries (Costa Rica, Malawi, Mali and Mexico) indicates that annual losses of
agricultural productivity due to soil erosion are equal to 1-1.5 per cent of their gross domestic product.
What about the separation of the land and production from the produce consuming community
and the emphasis of production for commodity trading not for food? Overall, Western Europe consumes nutrients from nearly 5 times its agricultural area - most in the form of animal feed and most going into intensive factory farming of pigs and poultry products.
Commodity trading is critically important in today's world food system. No more than 15
Transnational Corporations account for the bulk of this activity with only 6, (5 of them privately
owned) dominating. They account for 90% of trade in pineapples, 65% of bananas, 85% of tea, 90%
of cocoa beans, 70% of rice, 85% of coffee, 85% of corn, 60% of sugar, 85% of wheat. It is
instructive to look at their operations how they position themselves be feed supplier, banker, buyer
of finished cattle, butcher and wholesaler - everything but the farmer.
Do you think I have made the point? I admit to stretching it in places but I believe there is an
alarming similarity between the relationship our civilisation has with its resource base, its soil, its
agriculture, its food system and the one those destroyed civilisations had with theirs. And I believe
we have come to this dire situation for the same reason.
In the drive for greater and ever expanding economic wealth, we have ignored the limitations set by
our environment and have become abusive towards and divorced from civilisation's biological base
including the soil.
In my naÏve years I believed that converting as many farmers as possible to organic production was
an effective way of facing up to this. But as we have seen the globalisation of the organic market
confuses things. However, we can be more positive about organic agriculture when considering
the relationship between soil fertility and food quality and nutrition.
I am grateful to Kirsten Brandt of Newcastle University for the next few slides.
This is what we know; it is recognised in numerous scientific papers and, as at least trends and
tendencies, is acknowledge by all but the most Neanderthal or hired hacks.
Leaving aside the obviously important issue of residues, it is clear from a nutritional aspect that
fertilisation and the role of soil fertility is hugely significant. In particular, how the complexes in
the soil mediate the turnover, movement and uptake of nutrients. Soluble nutrients tend to bypass
these soil complexes and force themselves onto the plant. It makes little difference if these nutrients
are organic or synthetic chemicals, the enforced take-up is the same and the consequences are
similar. Poor and inappropriate use of inputs will lead to poor quality, nutritionally unbalanced
produce and pest and disease problems in certified organic, as it will conventional production.
I would now like to illustrate this with some examples.
These apples are all certified organic but are grown under different conditions where they have a surplus or deficiency of nitrogen,
You should be able to see that the apples look different. On one side they have suffered less from
disease. They have not been sprayed and the differences are due to the nitrogen levels.
Analysis for phenolic compounds showed small differences but not enough to explain the large
observable differences in quality.
However, as you can see there were large differences in pests and disease, which the researchers
interpreted as indicating the existence of some other secondary metabolites than the phenolic
compounds that are having an influence.
As I said before these apples are all certified organic but it is clear that, as in conventional systems,
different nitrogen regimes have an effect on quality.
Research on secondary metabolites is beginning to consistently show differences between organic
and conventional systems.
In a two year study looking at aromatic compounds in carrots, clear and definitive differences
favouring organic production were found. These compounds are known for their taste but they are
also known to defend carrots against diseases and pests.
There is significantly less infestation of organic carrots even though some of the conventional ones
were sprayed with pesticides.
Organic plants seem to be more resilient to stress and in this context show differences in natural
toxin levels to conventional plants. Here a very strong toxin, furanocumarin is produced in differing
levels in organic and conventional celeriac and parsnip.
The normal crop showed no difference between the organic and conventional. However in damaged
plants the conventional ones rose to much larger toxin levels than the organic ones, actually to
levels which are clearly above what is normally is accepted as safe in food.
But again to reiterate that even within a certified organic system the level and type of input – especially nitrogen – can lead to significant quality differences.
The great variation that exists in the quality in organic farming and organic food is one reason why
it has been difficult to amass definitive evidence to answer the question is organic food healthier
than conventional. Nonetheless, even though the practice of organic food production is not as good
as we would like; even though some certified organic food is unworthy of the words – organic and
food, nonetheless, organic agriculture is the only farming system that has as its underpinning
philosophy a concept of health and making that concept a viable reality as its goal.
© Elm Farm Research Centre
• "the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and
• there was a quality in the diets of the healthiest
peoples which was absent from the least healthy;
"that the food in all these diets is, for the most part,
fresh from its source, little altered by preparation,
and complete; and that, in the case of foods based on
agriculture, the natural cycle is complete. Animal
and vegetable waste - soil - plant - food - animal -
man; no chemical or substitution stage intervenes."
• Organic Agriculture should sustain and
enhance the health of soil, plant, animal and
human as one and indivisible.
Even after the passage of more than sixty years it is hard to find a better description of that concept
than the one given by Lady Eve Balfour; "the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and
She was a disciple of Sir Robert McCarrison, one of the pioneers of human nutrition who, having
systematically observed many peoples and many diets, realised that there was a quality in the diets
of the healthiest peoples which was absent from the least healthy; "that the food in all these diets is,
for the most part, fresh from its source, little altered by preparation, and complete; and that, in the
case of foods based on agriculture, the natural cycle is complete. Animal and vegetable waste - soil
- plant - food - animal - man; no chemical or substitution stage intervenes."
Others reached similar conclusions and the concept - that health was part of a continuum through
soil, plant, animal and man; and that by recycling nutrients through this chain, productivity could be
maintained over time and health could be enhanced at all stages - this concept became a foundation
stone of the international organic movement.
Or possibly a millstone! Because this concept is rooted in another and very problematic one; that of
wholeness (the two words wholeness and health share the same origin after all): problematic,
because in the words of Dr. Innes Pearce one of the founders of the Pioneer Health Centre and the
renowned “Peckham Experiment”, “biological wholes,…..unlike their parts, cannot be examined apart;
hence cannot be analysed; nor are they definable in terms of quantification.”
Whether in agriculture, food and nutrition or healthcare this problem has dogged the practioners of
what might, somewhat unsatisfactorily, be called “holistic science”.
The methodologies available to those researchers, and indeed lay people, who are interested in the
dynamics of whole biological systems and their relationship to the whole quality of food have been
lacking. They have allowed us only a partial look and yielded largely indicative information.
This has been valuable but it has not told us enough about the nature of health and how to enhance
it; nor about the relationship between the health of the living organisms (including humans) that
share the same living biological systems; to put it another way, about the essence of living.
I ought to clarify what I mean by the term health.
Health is the maintenance of physical, mental and social well-being and not simply the absence of
disease or illness. It is a continual process that accumulates and distributes the materials and energy
necessary for the function of all living organisms. Mutuality, resilience, self-regulation and
regeneration are key characteristics of this process.
McCarrison spoke about an extra quality in the diet of the healthiest people; Scott Williamson and
Pearce wrote about health being a biological process not a state; others have referred to vitality
being transferred between living organisms. To learn about these things, if they exist, we must
surely develop new insights and methodologies.
Fortunately, some dedicated people have been working on this problem and now we have for the
first time two government validated, holistic methods that might give us a tool to study living
organisms without taking them to pieces. The German government has accepted these – hitherto
wild and wacky, alternative methods – and accepted that they are repeatable, they are statistically
valid, they do work and there are legitimate.
One of these methods is the measurement of delayed luminescence using which organic and
conventional crops may be compared. The premise is that all living organisms transmit energy that
can be measured as low-level light, measuring this can detect a quality or character of that organism
that has hitherto remained unacknowledged but might be important to the vitality of the organism.
[Results -- wheat DOK]
[Results -- carrots]
Answers to questions
4. What is the meaning of measured differences ?
There are clear tendencies that:
• organic farming leads to seeds which are more seed-like
• organic farming leads to fruits which are riper
5. Does organic farming have an “extra quality” ?
• Yes – products are more species-typical
The idea that “the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible” is a
revolutionary one. Why revolutionary?
Because in order to give form, shape and structure to that concept we would have to fundamentally
alter the way our civilisation relates to the biological base of the planet; we would have to
fundamentally alter our civilisation's relationship to all our primary resources; and, probably more
difficult, alter the way we relate to each other as communities, regions and as individuals.
The answer to the question posed by the conference – what is our role, as farmers, as
consumers, as citizens? – is to develop that concept, to make it a reality, to lead and to oppose
the siren voices.
This certainly means opposing globalisation.
In the words of EF Schumacher: “..to replace our growth and consumption based economy “by
evolving a new lifestyle, with new methods of production and new patterns of consumption: a
lifestyle designed for permanence". This lifestyle must be built upon the principle of limitation,
"because the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited". It must only employ methods
and equipment "which are cheap enough so they are accessible to virtually everyone; suitable for
small-scale application; and compatible with Man's need for creativity." Out of these three
characteristics "is born non-violence and a relationship of Man to nature which guarantees
A local and organic food economy seems to be a good place to start.
Lawrence Woodward O.B.E
Director. Elm Farm Research Centre
Newbury, Berks RG20 0HR UK
Tel +44 (0)1488 658298 Fax +44 (0) 1488 658503
www.efrc.com or www.organicresearchcentre.com