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