Country: Politically correct porkers

Genetically modified food - who needs it? Sally Williams visits the heroes of the organic world
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Things are really looking up for the Soil Association. Ten years ago it was an inconsequential charity with an unpaid staff of five. Today it employs 50, and will turn over pounds 2.5m this year. Based in Bristol, it is the leading certifying body of all things organic. Carrots, chocolate, shampoo, even manure from Paignton Zoo, are all endorsed by the Soil Association. It authenticates 80 per cent of the organic market.

Germany has about 100 such organisations. This country has only four. Consequently, getting Soil Association approval, being awarded that swirly triangle in a circle, they say, really counts for something. "It shows that the product and all the processes along the way: the farm, the farmer, the abattoir, the packers, have been inspected by us and conform to regulations set by the United Kingdom Register of Food Standards," says Patrick Holden, an organic farmer, who is the association's director.

Holden, like many of the association's senior male staff, is dressed in casual country attire, with tie. The rest - environmentalists and a pretty right-on bunch - wear DMs, floaty dresses, jeans and T-shirts. But no Swampy-style grunge. Kathie Burton, business operations director, is even wearing a smart suit. But then, this former administrator with IBM has the job of making things more businesslike. "It wasn't that it was unprofessional," she explains briskly, "but it did need to behave more like a modern commercial organisation. It is much in demand."

Especially now the organic food market is worth pounds 260m and growing at the rate of 40 per cent a year. Farmers - realising that there is money to be made - have even stopped throwing stones at Simon Brenman, the producer services manager, who has worked for the association in various guises for 15 years. He recently held a seminar at the Bath and West Show and "filled the tent to overflowing. It was packed," he enthuses, obviously still not quite believing it.

Patrick Holden is so busy, I had to be squeezed in before an interview with Radio 5 wanting an update on the organic farmer Guy Watson. The day before, Holden chaired an all-day meeting on genetic engineering. The day before that, he hosted a visit to the Prince of Wales's estate at Highgrove to admire the farming methods behind Duchy Originals. And the day before that he milked 62 cows.

What was once a marginal band of committed individuals finds itself, like the organic market it serves, moving into the mainstream. This year, the association's Organic Food Awards will be held at Raymond Blanc's restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, which is a million miles from the organic niche that the Soil Association used to be in. And, there, holding the association's hand as it blinks in the light of day, is Jonathan Dimbleby, president ("a great resource", says Kathie).

And Kathie Burton will be there. She has introduced computer systems, formalised recruitment procedures, introduced staff appraisals. There are new offices, too. Exit the cramped box-room in a converted Georgian house. Enter slick, open-plan, modern rooms with recycled glass and timber in co-ordinated yellow and green. There must be money to spare because the association now has complimentary postcards of sheep, pigs and fork- lift trucks stylishly shot in black and white by Jim Hodson, an award- winning photographer, and a very fetching painting of a carrot executed by the artist in residence.

Even the stationery has had a make-over. "It was a mess," says Chris Binding, who, with Christopher Ball, designed the new corporate identity. "Different colours, different typefaces." Which just leaves the name. "The very first thing we asked when starting the job was 'is the name up for change?'" recollects Chris. "It is a bit confusing." People assume it's something to do with geology or soil science - requests for a soil analysis are so common, Simon has compiled a long list of laboratories to refer callers to; and, let's face it, who wants to think about mud when eating organic chocolate?

And herein lies the Soil Association's biggest problem. It is best known for something it never set out to do. Its origins are not in promoting organic farming, but in compost.

The Soil Association was set up by Lady Eve Balfour in 1946. Her thesis was that "the health of man, beast, plant and soil is one indivisible whole"; that if you practise good husbandry of the soil, there are observable benefits to the health of plants, animals and people dependent on it. Soil is central, you see.

"There may, from a marketing point, be arguments for changing the name," suggests Burton diplomatically. But Patrick Holden is adamant: "The name stays. We value our history and roots. Soil is a commodity we're pointing out the value of. The lack of recognition for it has been responsible for much of the consequences of industrial agriculture. Rather than change the name," he concludes, "we re-educate the public." Much in the same way that "organic", for most people, used to mean chemistry. "The principles and objectives Lady Eve had when she set up the association are still pertinent today."

But the reasons why people support those principles have changed. There is a new-style Soil Association member: a person who disapproves of industrial agriculture, not because they care passionately about the environment, like the founding idealists, but because they don't want to die from BSE; or because - the unethical scoundrels - they simply think organic tastes better.

"There are tensions between our members," concedes Burton. "The ideologues don't approve of supermarkets, mothers-of-three wouldn't shop anywhere else and the foodies want as much choice as possible. We must try to straddle these differences," says Patrick Holden. "But we must also guard against diluting the original message."

Just how the association achieves this remains to be seen. In the meantime, Lady Eve, a tough-looking old trout with a beret, keeps a firm eye on proceedings from her portrait in the association's library. What would she think of it so far? Simon Brenman does not hesitate. "Formidable," he says. "Formidable."

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