Defections debate at Soil Association

In December, four of the 17 trustees resigned from the UK’s largest organic certification body, the Soil Association. The four were Joanna Blythman, Lynda Brown, Andrew Whitley and Pat Thomas.

This caused quite a stir, a to and fro between the relevant parties ensued, with commentators of various persuasions contributing to the wider debate.

So what was it all about? The four cited seven issues they have with the Soil Association (SA).

1. Demise of organic awareness: this relates to the emphasis on other initiatives, schemes and quality marks, over and above what they call “the ‘O’ word” — certified organic produce, the thing the SA is supposed to be primarily about. They claim the SA seems worried about scaring the potential organic consumer away.

2. Subordination and dilution of the organic message to a healthy eating message: as above, but with the SA as a public health delivery organisation, when there are plenty more organisations available for that.

3. The Soil Association’s public profile: lack of clout, authority, position in agri-food, lack of PR awareness at senior SA level.

4. A dull and uninspiring image:described as a weak, wishy-washy, vague positionality, “A safe, cautious, controversy-averse image, pre-occupied with being all things to all men and with an over-arching ‘soft sell’.”

5. The inward-looking and parochial nature of the Soil Association: myopia and ignorance of the outside world, where organic is often, they claim, stronger, more successful and growing.

6. Membership issues: declining, undervalued membership, a lifestyle focus, and “an emerging agenda to change the Soil Association from a campaigning membership organisation into a ‘corporate’ entity.”

7. Inadequate support and allegiance to organic farmers and growers: licensee numbers have stagnated, yet there seems to be no strategy, in the farming or consumer arenas, to capitalise on the upturn of organic sales and to overtly champion organic food.

The resigning trustees’ letter to the Soil Association also drew attention to “the questionable presence on the Management Committee (with attendant reputational risk) of a non-organic farmer, and a doctor who publicly attacks an important tool of organic animal husbandry (homoeopathy)”.

This “seems not to concern a Council that purports to be committed to good governance” they added.

When queried by this columnist, Soil Association chief executive Helen Browning said: “The Soil Association’s strategy focuses as strongly as ever on organic food and farming, but also reaches out to broader audiences. We are sorry these trustees felt unable to support our initiatives to work with non-organic as well as organic farmers, and with many others, to transform the food served in schools, hospitals, nurseries, care homes and workplaces. We think the challenges facing our food systems today are so urgent that we need to work with all who are interested in finding solutions in line with our founding principles.”

“Through our programmes of work and organic certification, we see pioneering innovation from organic farmers, who have always been the heart of the movement. And through our work in areas like public health, we have found real world solutions that help and incentivise businesses to change.

“I don’t want us to be in constant spats with farmers and growers, organic or not, but for us to be doing our best to make organic principles like great soil management and rotations, the norm for as many farmers as possible. We all need to strive to improve our farming systems, and to learn from each other.”

This is perhaps a rerunning of the age-old debate between those who want a big, more generic organic movement, and those who want it more engaged, pure, and even, at times, oppositional.

Next week: views from the Irish organic sector on the Soil Association resignations and debate


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