Where is the Soil Association going with all this? An open letter to Helen Browning.

[As an explanatory note: Helen Browning OBE is Chief Executive of the Soil Association.]

Dear Helen,

A few days ago, the Soil Association tweeted a message about the advantages of organic farming with respect to animal welfare. The short film attached to the tweet suggested that only organic cows were happy cows and that a mere 3% of cows in the UK were organic. By inference the tweet suggested that the rest had poorer welfare standards. The resulting explosion on Twitter from many farmers has caused the Soil Association to withdraw its tweet and apologise.

The apology shown below is well-meaning; but when looked at closely, only serves to confuse the matter further. It talks about 80% of animals in the EU being reared in factory farms, where the original tweet was about UK farms. So we have confusion about what exactly is a factory farm and why the Soil Association conflated EU statistics with UK ones. Taken altogether, your tweet and its subsequent apology are in turn misleading and then confused – and suggest a weak attempt to wriggle out of the problem you have created for yourselves.

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-09-15-28

As an ex Soil Association Licensee, I have often looked upon the inner workings of the organisation with disbelief. I have seen, first hand, the disconnect between the rhetoric of the organisation and the  actual organic farmers themselves. The latter are hard working and often exceptionally good business people. The former are people mostly divorced from the countryside and its workings – and are largely dependent upon the public purse for their incomes. They lead sheltered, air-conditioned lives by comparison with their real farming colleagues. Under your predecessor, Patrick Holden, I watched a beleaguered former president of the NFU, Peter Kendall, struggle to keep his temper when surrounded by the Soil Association’s conference hall full of right-on supporters. The issue, as always, was that the Soil Association considers itself to be the sole guardian of good agricultural practice; and that “conventional” farmers are wicked, chemical spraying exploiters of the countryside who are only doing it for money. The offending tweet above is just one of a long series of gratuitous insults levelled at UK farmers (and, by extension, Irish ones as well) by the Soil Association.

A particular case in point has been the Soil Association’s response to bovine TB. This has  amounted to the pusillanimous avoidance of discussion of the problem in order to minimise exposing its members to the truth about bTB and badgers. The thrust of SA public statements has been the idea that avoidance of stress in cattle leads to lower incidence of bTB and that organic farming avoids stress. From which the public infers that organic systems avoid bTB. This is manifestly not the case and there is no difference in bTB incidence between organic and non-organic farms. And yet the Soil Association has been been content to continue to sow this misleading impression amongst the public.

For many years the Soil Association has continuously sought to further organic food as  being distinctive and of higher quality – in order to justify the higher prices which are essential to pay for what is actually a very expensive product. To a point, this may be fair enough. But much of that “distinctiveness” has also been driven by the idealogical belief that the Soil Association is not only “better” than “conventional” but that it is also more distinctive than the other organic standards bodies. The result has been an ever-ratcheting spiral of increasingly onerous standards. This in turn has made the system more expensive and difficult to achieve. The premium for the food produced does not compensate the farmer for the hidden costs of compliance, and so the farmer finally gives up organic status and reverts to more sensible non-organic farming (and improves his bank balance as a consequence).

The upshot of all this organic propaganda has been the public sowing of division between organic and non-organic farming systems. The greater the “distinctiveness” between the organic and non-organic standards, the more the Soil Association has rubbished the conventional farmer. This has inevitably resulted in resentment amongst non-organic farmers – and some embarrassment amongst existing organic farmers that their neighbours should be thus slagged off.

But there is a glitch in the Soil Association scheme. By alienating the non-organic farmers, the Soil Association has also alienated the very market from which it draws new entrants to organic farming. For some years, after the subsidy system was altered in favour of organic farming, there were more new entrants to organic conversion than there were departures. Then the departures from organic farming started to gather pace. For a while, that was balanced by the number of new entrants. So, on paper, things were moderately static or even improving in terms of organic hectares. However the situation has now changed and the number of new entrants is being exceeded by the departures. The result is a dramatic decline in organic farming in the UK:

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To emphasise the decline in the new entrants to organic farming, the following graph gives the relative declines in the amounts of land in organic conversion (both charts copied from Defra Organic Farming Statistics dated 19th May 2016):

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-12-44-29

These numbers are brutal. They suggest that there is a small percentage (3%) of farmers who are hanging on to their organic status because they like it. But the original Soil Association aim of making a meaningful percentage of UK farmland to convert to organic is looking increasingly doubtful. Indeed, the total organic area has declined by 30% since 2008.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the Soil Association has reached a fork in the road. One choice is for you all to continue as you have been doing, by denigrating the vast majority of UK and Irish farmers who conduct their businesses using the highest standards anywhere in the world. Or the Soil Association can undertake a complete culture change and go back to the original principles of Eve Balfour – and use the huge amount of modern knowledge which confirms that the health of the soil, its microbes and invertebrates, is essential to environmentally and economically sustainable farming. The first choice is the easy choice of maintaining your quasi-regulatory, commercial, charitable and idealogical fixations. It will depend to an increasing degree upon the taxpayer, because the income from farming and UK produced and processed food will continue to decline. But ultimately it will lead to an organisation which exists solely to talk to itself.  The second path is the most difficult and would involve a huge amount of courage, because much of the existing Soil Association would disappear. But it is the one that is most needed.

So Helen, I suggest a choice between the original purpose of the Soil Association and good management of the soil; or the perpetuation of an organisation which has forgotten the very place from whence it first sprang.

Which will you take?

Yours sincerely,

David Eyles.

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4 Responses to Where is the Soil Association going with all this? An open letter to Helen Browning.

  1. Rosemary Mason says:

    Does Wulfstan’s ghost know how much pesticides are sprayed on conventional crops? For example the area treated with glyphosate went from 1,750,000 ha in 2012 to 2,250,000 ha in 2014 due to blackgrass (Fera figures). The number of active substances used on oil seed rape (mollusc ides, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides between 1988 and 2014 increased from 5 to 15 and the times treated went from 5 in 1988 to 12 in 2014. As a result the UK’s Biodiversity Impact Index (State of Nature 2016) is one of the lowest in the world…189th out of 218. Only the Republic of Ireland and the US are lower than Britain.

    • All of that may be the case and may indeed justify organic farming. However, my point was not to discuss the relative merits or otherwise of the different systems, but to discuss the attitude of the Soil Association towards other UK farmers. The offending tweet implied that animal welfare standards were much lower on conventional farms. It was this that is the contentious issue and that is what I brought to the attention of Helen Browning (if she has read it).

      Incidentally, I have read State of Nature 2016 and have grave misgivings about some of the evidence that it used to reach its conclusions. But that is another story.

      • Rosemary Mason says:

        I have first hand evidence of what’s happened to nature. Our Nature Reserve in South Wales has been poisoned by Roundup sprayed on Japanese knotweed outside the reserve. We established it in 2001 and by 2016 all of the invertebrates, bumblebees, butterflies, dragonflies, moths, hoverflies, beetles and spiders etc we recorded have gone; we measured glyphosate in the water in 2013 and 2014. The biodiversity has crashed in the whole area.
        It is an enormous disaster. They are the canaries in the coal mine and predict what it happening to humans.
        Rosemary

  2. Thank you for your comments Rosemary and I apologise for being slow to get back to you, after your first comment.

    Your comments on Glyphosate are interesting, but unfortunately, I know little about the chemistry, toxicology and persistence of it. You are right in that it’s use has become much more widespread in the last decade. This is because of the increased use of minimum tillage to replace traditional ploughing. Minimum tillage is said to retain soil structure and also soil microbes, so there are environmental advantages of using this system. However, there is both hype and hysteria surrounding the use of this chemical and at the moment, I have not yet reached judgement.

    Many thanks,

    David.

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