Soil group keen for open dialogue

Four high profile trustees of the Soil Association left in December, citing a number of reasons for departing.
Soil group keen for open dialogue

In general, these revolved around the SA being a meek and broad organisation, rather than a campaigning, strongly organic group.

The latter presumes some form of opposition to conventional farming, while the former is more generic — a soft focus, good food organisation which also happens to certify farmers as organic.

Tracy Jones, who is studying for an MSc in organic farming, feels that, on balance, the trustees were too disengaged from the conventional farming sector.

“I am a keen advocate of open dialogue between organic and conventional farmers and farming organisations. Many conventional farmers say they’ve learnt from organics and have implemented some organic practices,” said Tracy.

“You cannot within the EU label products as organic unless you are certified.” However the broad message the SA carry is about “widening organic practices and principles beyond just those who are certified. Some conventional farmers do an excellent job of embracing agro-ecological practices”.

Tracy adds: “Farmers who direct sell and build relationships with their customers are sometimes using organic practices but do not necessarily certify. If we want organic to move beyond being niche we need to be open and transparent, not closed and seen as unapproachable.

“Whilst it is sad for those trustees, who put a lot of time and effort into the Soil Association to feel marginalised the organic movement needs to engage with a larger audience who are sometimes put off by the ‘O’ word!”

Dr Eoin Lettice represents, as it were, a new breed of organic stakeholder.

He is a plant science lecturer at University College Cork and Deputy Director of the Centre for Organic Horticulture Research at UCC.

“The Soil Association, with similar organisations around the world, largely do a very good job at promoting organic production methods.

"There will always be a struggle in any industry with regards to the direction industry should take — some taking a pragmatic approach, others sticking to historical precedent. In this case, the four trustees appear to have raised a range of somewhat valid criticisms — mainly business based — about how the association is run.”

Dr Lettice agrees with Jones that the broad, inclusive approach is preferable: “Elsewhere in their letter they make it clear that an important factor in their decision to resign is the makeup of the management committee.

"In particular, they object to “a non-organic farmer” and separately a “doctor who publicly attacks an important tool of organic animal husbandry (homeopathy)” sitting on the committee.”

He adds: “There is huge value to be had in having people of diverse viewpoints on any committee. Dividing food production into competing ideologies does nobody any good. For that reason, having non-organic farmers on such a committee could be very useful.

"Many farmers grow in a highly sustainable way, while not necessarily meeting the very strict requirements of the organic certification bodies.”

Though it wasn’t in the main points the Trustees made as complaints, the reference in the letter to homoeopathy seems to have riled Dr Lettice.

“The objection to a committee member because of his opposition to homeopathy reflects poorly on the four departing trustees and their understanding of basic science.

"There is no evidence that homeopathy works. It is a pseudoscience and its promotion by a small number of organic producers casts a shadow over the very real and evidence-based benefits of organic production, such as in soil health and biodiversity.

"For that reason, we need more scientific research on organic systems — something we’re leading here at Centre for Organic Horticulture Research in UCC — and we need strong leaders within organic bodies to stand up for the science.

"UK-based organic producers should be re-assured that the Soil Association has such a strong advocate for science on their board of trustees.”

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