My life in… Organic

In the spring of 1986 I was sitting in the library of Oxford Poly (now Oxford Brookes University) and wondering what I was going to do with my forthcoming Food Science and Nutrition degree. My former employer, Leatherhead Food Research, had agreed to take me back, but I wanted to do something new. As part of my course I had been reading Maurice Hansen’s book E Is For Additives and was becoming increasingly uneasy about the artificial nature of many of the products I had been working with throughout the first part of my career in food. And if artificial ingredients were looking dodgy, what about all the chemicals farmers were adding to crops? I was beginning to get interested in this mystical sounding thing called ‘organic’.

 

The answer turned out to be a jobs ad in the Daily Telegraph: Whole Earth Foods was looking for a nutritionist. At interview, I suggested to Whole Earth’s founder Craig Sams that while the company did not need a nutritionist (Craig knew enough) it desperately needed a food technologist. I started work as product development manager in the autumn of 1986.

 

The factory at Warrington was trying to do everything – peanut butter, jam, breakfast cereals, salad dressings, chutneys and more. Over the next few years I outsourced the production of many of these lines to more specialised contract manufacturers. Craig had a real flair for thinking up brilliant new concepts, and it was my job to refine them and turn them into reality. Many of our products were based on Craig’s macrobiotic beliefs: all our products were made without sugar or hydrogenated fat and were organic wherever possible. The range swiftly expanded, and our peanut butter made it into Waitrose. By now I was on the Whole Earth Board as development director and a minority shareholder in the business.

 

I found out more about the UK’s burgeoning natural and organic food business by hanging out at trade shows, and began to build bridges to other organisations that were sympathetic to the Whole Earth nutritional vision. I became a board member at the London Food Commission, which published The Food Magazine, espousing a radical agenda around food, health, politics and sustainability.

 

As far back as 1974 the Soil Association had published the first set of standards to cover organic production, and these would eventually form the basis of the initial EU organic legislation 2092/91. I was working closely with the Soil Association to certify the Whole Earth range and found myself increasingly drawn into the operations of the Soil Association itself. Starting off as a member of its Processing Committee, I also chaired the Ethical Standards Committee, served on the Management Committee and helped with the Organic Food Awards. This culminated in a stint on the Soil Association Council from 2001-2007. I remain a member of the Soil Association Standards Board to this day.

 

How did I find the time to edit the first ever Handbook of Organic Food Processing and Production? Published in 1991, this was the first time anyone had even considered organic processing as a separate subject. A second edition followed in 2000, together with translations into Spanish and Korean.

 

In 1995 I resigned from Whole Earth to see what working for myself would be like. Originally it was to tide me over for a few months until I found a proper job. What happened instead was that the UK organic sector took off like a rocket. In response, I set up OF+ and spent the next few years helping large companies around the world to develop their organic ranges.

 

The UK government had finally recognised that the UK’s burgeoning organic sector needed support. Accordingly, the Department For Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) set up the UK Register of Organic Standards (UKROFS). I was invited to serve on the Board from 1999 until it was dissolved in 2003. The job of UKROFS was to oversee the activities of the UK’s organic certifying bodies – 14 by 2003. An extension of my work with Defra was a commission to write the first ever UK Compendium of Organic Standards, published in 2003.

 

Having done organic manufacturing, brands, government and certification, I then decided retailing was the missing piece of my experience and spent eight very productive years working on organics at Sainsbury’s, during which time I helped to develop the SO organic own-label brand. Throughout my time with Sainsbury’s, it remained the UK’s premier organic supermarket, culminating in it winning Organic Supermarket Of The Year.

 

In 2006, Helen Taylor of the Soil Association and I ran a joint organic seminar with Jeffrey Hyman of the Food Development Innovation Network entitled ‘Where Next For Organic?’. A consensus emerged that no one was representing the commercial side of organics in the UK. What was needed was a body that could bring together all the organic companies (food and non-food) to push sales. The result was The Organic Trade Board, of which I am a founder member. Since its formation, UK organic sales have returned to growth, which means UK organic is back on track.