Crunch time for organics

Posted on: 08 October 2010 by Michael Wale

Organic farming is under attack from giant agri-business, local producers and price-conscious consumers. Can supporters convince that the benefits outweigh the financial cost.

organic farming

After 15 years Patrick Holden is standing down as Director of the Soil Association, the organisation that leads the fight on behalf of organic farming and food. It is a decision that faces the whole organic movement with a crucial moment in its history.

Already a shortlist has been drawn up, and Holden’s successor should be named by mid-October. Head hunters were hired to find the person to fit this key position, which annoyed many members of the Soil Association who felt that they should have a vote in the matter, as they do on the yearly, usually competitive, appointment of the committee. I am assured the shortlist is ‘exciting’, so I hope that my own choice of Helen Browning is the successful candidate. After a lifetime in many executive jobs with the Soil Association over the years she left quietly at the beginning of the year to become Director of External Affairs.

The Soil Association was started in 1943 by Eve Lady Balfour, niece of the one time Conservative Prime Minister Lord Balfour. She was truly amazing woman for her time, because not only did she run her own farm in East Anglia but she was a proficient pilot, saxophonist and writer of books. She wrote thrillers purely to support her farming, but she also wrote the seminal book about organic farming The Living Soil, re-printed to this day, which carried her message about respect and proper use of the soil without the use of chemicals.

Helen Browning is also a farmer. Unusually she was backed by her father, which in British agriculture is not always the case. Farmers preferring their sons to take over when they retire. But Helen’s father gave her an acre or so on the family farm just outside of Swindon in Wiltshire, while she was still at agricultural college and wanted to experiment with organic projects. Her father was a conventional farmer, and thought his daughter was mad, but gave her her freedom. She gradually won him over, and he admitted to being impressed by her work and eventually she took over the rented farm, a long and narrow area high on the hills above the horse racing village of Lambourn. It is there that she has built a highly successful organic pig farm, in which all the animals are kept out of doors. Her sausages are sold to supermarkets. She also came to the rescue of one of the village’s pubs, and brought it back to life with a full time chef providing local and organic food, much of it from her own farm.

Whoever is appointed as successor to Patrick Holden will have a hard task and faces what could be a defingin moment in organic movement’s history. There are various reasons for this. The recession caused a huge drop in the demand for organic food, because of its cost to the consumer, a report from the Food Standards Authority found that organic food was no better nutritionally than any other food available, and there was a successful marketing campaign for local food, which was not necessarily organic.

Organic farming is also under constant attack from the giant agri-business, who market chemical they claim will make yields better and improve the fertility of the soil, as well as pesticides that prevent insects and other creatures that attack crops. Organic farmers claim that the loss of many honey bees and much of what is good in the countryside is down to the products the giant agri business companies.

The biggest row between these companies and the organic movement is about Genetically Modified seeds and food. GM has been opposed by the Soil Association, backed by public opinion, since it was launched by the giant Monsanto company. The Soil Association believes that secretly successive British Governments wished GM could be accepted as an answer to feeding the world in the future.

At present the organic movement is highly suspicious about the Coalition’s Secretary of State for DEFRA, the agricultural ministry that re-placed the Ministry of Agriculture after the foot and mouth outbreak. Spellman was formerly involved in the agricultural industry specialising in the sugar beet sector. The Soil Association feels easier with Jim Paice, the Farming Minister, who has a farming background, and earlier this year, while shadow minister, attended, and spoke at, the Soil Association agm in Birmingham.

Patrick Holden will be hard to replace. An eloquent speaker, he hardly had an enemy among those he attacked regularly, like Peter Kendall, President of the powerful National Farmers Union, the voice of conventional farming, who says that he may not agree with any of Holden’s views but respects him as a human being. Holden is also an astute networker, and through the one-time President of the Soil Association the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby has become a close friend of Prince Charles, who, as a result, is an arch pro organic believer. Prince Charles even has a bust of Holden in his garden at Highgrove in Gloucestershire. Dimbleby who trained as a farmer at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, and has just returned to farming in Devon, formed a formidable partnership with Holden. Unfortunately his successor, the TV gardening personality Monty Don, has not proved as positive an appointment. This makes the task of Holden’s successor even more important.

It is hoped that the next Director of the Soil association will be a farmer as with Holden, who farms in the wilds of West Wales near Lampeter, where is bad weather his dairy farm can be cut off from the rest of civilisation. There are rumours that this maybe not so. I trust it will be. That would be the strength of Helen Browning.

The Soil Association is an association of farmers and growers. That is its strength and weakness. But that is what it is, and has always been, and that is what its future should be.

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Is there value in organic farming?

Rising prices, debate over nutritional value and the recession have all taken a toll on the popularity of organic produce. Commercial farming, on the other hand, offers us convenience and vastly increased crop yields. Is this a price worth paying for what pro-organics claim could have catastrophic consequences for future generations?

  1. 50% I buy both organic and non organic
  2. 25% Yes
  3. 25% No
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