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What Is Soil Association Organic & What Do They Do?

soil association organic farming

Over the last few years I’ve made a conscious shift to try and switch as many products I use as possible over to organic.

A common logo I often see on products is that of the Soil Association Organic.

But who are soil association organic and what do they do?

In short, the Soil Association Organic are the oldest and largest organic certifier in the UK. They certify almost three quarters of all the organic food and drink products in the UK. Their mission goes much further than purely looking after soil and inspecting farms.

Let’s have a closer look at the Soil Association Organic, their organic standards, certification and more. But first let’s check out the organic market and clear up what market means.

The growing organic food market

I’m not the only one who’s been buying more organic food.

Over the past decade almost, the UK organic market has been going from strength to strength each year.

In 2020, the Soil Association released their annual Organic Market Report showing a 4.5% in organic sales through 2019. It’s said now that organic land accounts for almost 4% of all UK agricultural land.

It may cost a little more, but the quality, healthiness and environmental benefits of organic products are worth it.

However, isn’t it strange that you have to pay more for food that doesn’t have excess chemicals in it.

What does organic mean?

Before we get into the detail on the Soil Association Organic, let’s just cover what organic actually means.

To be organic doesn’t cover just one thing. Organic means a whole system of farming and producing food that puts people, animals, soils and the environment at the very centre of its practices.

To be labelled ‘organic’, a farm or product must meet a very strict set of standards (which we’ll go into further down) and are inspected every year to ensure they are sticking to the organic standards.

This means that the principles of organic are clearly defined. This contracts to other common packaging labels and claims, such as ‘healthy’, ‘natural’ and ‘biodegradable’.

These are incredibly broad and are not certified, meaning they are open to be taken advantage of. Take a look at my Eco Glossary for similar terms and the real meanings.

Something labelled ‘organic’ is the real deal. It’s been tried, tested and certified, and backed up by law.

In practice, organic farming looks like this:

  • A ban on weedkillers and most pesticides – the use of artificial chemicals is not allowed under organic farming. A farmer can only use a pesticide as a last resort and this must be a naturally-derived pesticide, such as citronella. A thriving ecosystem and natural balance between animals and plants should be relied on to prevent pests
  • No artificial fertilise use – healthy, fertile soil does not need the use of artificial, chemical-based fertiliser. Organic farmers keep soils healthy through crop rotation, the use of compost and animal manure.
  • High importance of animal welfare – it’s not just about soils and plants. Animals need to be looked after properly under organic standards and farms are inspected on the animal living conditions, feed, transportation and slaughter. Organic goes way further for the benefit of the animal than free-range.
  • No genetic modification (GM) – organic standards bans the use of genetic modification, including the food that animals are fed, which must be natural and organic.
  • No preservatives or artificial colours – the use of any artificial colours, sweeteners (such as aspartame), hydrogenated fats and preservatives are not allowed in organically labelled food and drink
green legumes and vegetation enhancing soil fertility and health
No artificial fertiliser need with good, sustainable soil management. Source: Soil Association Instagram

Many of these organic farming principles also fit in with the rewilding movement we are currently seeing here in the UK and further afield.

There’s a brilliant sustainability book about rewilding called Wilding by Isabella Tree.

If you haven’t come across rewilding before, you can make small steps for wildlife at home. Take a look at this blog on how to rewild your garden.

What is the Soil Association Organic?

“The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.”
Sir Albert Howard, one of the Soil Association founders

Founded in 1946, the Soil Association is a UK charity, an original instigator of the organic movement and campaigner for sustainable, healthy agriculture and land use.

It was founded by a group of people who were concerned about soil loss, decreased food quality, animal exploitation and the impact on wildlife through intensive farming processes.

There are a number of bodies that sit under the Soil Association Organic.

One of these is the Soil Association Certification Limited, the UK’s largest organic certification body. Although owned by the Soil Association, this business is run as a not for profit, with financial returns invested back into the works of the charity.

The Soil Association also runs another charity called the Soil Association Land Trust, which acquires and safeguards farmland in a sustainable manner. A lot of this land is donated by retiring farmers and landowners who want to see their land go into safe hands to be protected for the long term.

What does the Soil Association Organic do?

broccoli grown on organic certified farm
Organic broccoli anyone?

For the first 30 years of existence, the Soil Association ran an experiment on their farm in Suffolk. This experiment found that to maintain a fruitful, organic farm, the key is maintaining a healthy living soil.

These beginnings have clearly shaped what the Soil Association Organic do today, but there are numerous strings to the Soil Association’s bow.

At their core, the Soil Association aims to make a positive impact on human health, nature, soil, water, forests and animal welfare.  

The Soil Association strategy can be summarised into two main purposes that show their vision for the future:

  1. Good food for all
  2. Produced with care for the natural world

To achieve their goals, the Soil Associations does many things, not limited just to organic product certification.

Other initiatives include public education on nutrition, advising and working with farmers, running a variety of campaigns, training schemes, lobbying government for change, research and development and sustainable land management.

What is the Soil Association Organic standard?

The Soil Association developed some of the world’s first organic standards back in the 1960s.

Today, they still strive to improve organic farming practices, outlined by the standards that define how an organic product is grown, farmed or created. These standards all fall in line with the strict European Union regulations on how organic food must be produced.

It’s important to note that the whole supply chain of the product must also meet these standards.

There are different versions of the organic standards set out per sector, such as food and drink, forestry, healthy and beauty, plus others. All standards, however, revolve around the four core organic principles of:

  • Health
  • Ecology
  • Fairness
  • Care

As you can see it’s not just about how a type of food is grown in a field. The Soil Association Organic standards cover the environment, animal welfare and human health too.

To be labelled ‘organic, at least 95% of the ingredients must come from organic plants or animals.

organic chicken in field animal welfare important to soil association organic
Animal welfare is a key principle in organic farming

What is Soil Association Certification?

The Soil Association’s certification body is the UK’s largest organic certifier, guaranteeing the organic credentials of over 70% of the organic food on sale in the UK.

It’s not the only organic certifier though. In the UK, there are 8 approved UK organic control bodies, including the Soil Association Certification alongside Organic Farmers & Growers, Organic Food Federation and others. All organic certifiers have a unique code and logo.

If you weren’t sure, it’s not just food and drink that can be certified as organic. The Soil Association Certification has 6 certification schemes covering:

  • Farming
  • Beauty and Wellbeing
  • Fashion and Textiles
  • Forestry
  • Food Service
  • Food and Drink

Of course, in order to be certified, the product or practice must meet all of the organic standards and regulations outlined for that sector. During inspection, all companies up and down the supply chain are also inspected.

Once a product has met all the standards, it can then be approved and licensed as Soil Association Organic. The organic certificate is valid for 1 year and all organic farms and food companies will be inspected at least once a year. If the inspection is passed again, the organic certificate will be renewed.

It is against the law for a company to label a product as ‘organic’ without being certified.  

The Soil Association Certification are also registered to certify schemes such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).  

What does the Soil Association Organic logo mean?

soil association logo

The Soil Association Organic logo means that the product has met a number of strict standards, complying with the standards of the Soil Association as well as EU organic regulation standards.

It’s an assurance mark of trust, as opposed to products that claim they are ‘sustainable’ but don’t have any real credentials to back it up.

Whenever you see the EU organic logo, you know that product has met standards that are underpinned by law. As Soil Association certified products have to legally comply with these EU organic regulations, you can be very confident in the type of product you are buying.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the UK official left the EU on 1st January 2021. This makes things a little more complicated.

However, the good news is that as per the trade deal, if a product holds an EU Organic Regulation certificate that expires past the leaving date, it is still valid as Great Britain has retained all the requirements of the EU Organic Regulation.

There will be further implications and requirements for importing, exporting and labelling, all of which you can keep up to date with here.

The organic market is growing steadily each year and the Soil Association are at the heart of it. The Soil Association not only ensure that organic farms grow plants, produce animals and look after the soil as per the organic standards, they also do a lot of work outside the farm field.

They strive to educate the public on good health, as well as running campaigns, training programmes and push the people in people to instigate positive change at the top of society.

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Ben & Murphy Peaks Mam Tor

Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.

Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.