Soil Association must get back to its roots

Now this is really what it's all about ... harvesting organic leeks at Sandy Lane Farm, Oxfordshire. Photo: .
Now this is really what it's all about ... harvesting organic leeks at Sandy Lane Farm, Oxfordshire. Photo: .
Four trustees of the Soil Association just resigned, 'more in sorrow than in anger'. Joanna Blythman, Lynda Brown, Andrew Whitley and former Ecologist editor Pat Thomas all decided they were unable to contribute further to the organisation, the UK's leading organic certifier and the 'mother ship' of British organic farming.
Despite our strenuous attempts to raise our latest concerns in a way that was discreet and proper, the majority response has been to shoot the messenger rather than face the awkward message.

We expect fellow members of the Soil Association will wonder why we resigned. In a democratic organisation they certainly have a right to be told without delay.

Below is an edited version of our resignation letter and a shortened summary of the concerns which led to our collective action, following a vote by a majority of the Soil Association Council not to hold an emergency meeting to address the issues.

A longer account of our concerns is available, should Soil Association members or the wider community wish to read it.

We think that the organic approach to food and farming is ecologically coherent, humane, scientifically responsible and potent and we remain committed supporters of the organisation's founding purposes.

We hope that our action stimulates thought about how the Soil Association might campaign most effectively for the adoption of organic ideas in order to build a healthy society from the ground up.

Our edited resignation letter

Dear Dennis [Dennis Overton, Chair of SA Council]

We are writing to tender our resignations as Trustees of the Soil Association with immediate effect.

Since joining Council we have tried to fulfil our obligation as trustees to help guide the organisation in achieving its aims and purposes. Our contributions have been based on a clear commitment to the organic cause and on our long-standing and varied track record in food policy, campaigning, journalism and production.

We have brought to Council not only perspective but engagement. We have reported on how others see the Association and have presented several well thought-through proposals for improvements in practice.

Despite our strenuous attempts to raise our latest concerns in a way that was discreet and proper, the majority response has been to shoot the messenger rather than face the awkward message.

Meanwhile, the questionable presence on Management Committee (with an attendant reputational risk) of a non-organic farmer and a doctor who publicly attacks an important tool of organic animal husbandry (homoeopathy) seems not to concern a Council that purports to be committed to good governance.

We fear for the good name and relevance of an organisation that we have supported for many years. We have done our best to alert fellow trustees to the dangers implicit in the way that the current strategy is being implemented.

It is clear that ours is a minority view and we can no longer collude in a bogus consensus. Accordingly we are resigning. We will continue to devote our energies to challenging corporate control of the food system.

Yours sincerely,

Joanna Blythman, Lynda Brown, Pat Thomas, Andrew Whitley.

Shortened summary of trustee concerns

Implementation of the Soil Association strategy [Road to 2020] and its effect on the Soil Association profile.

Despite our strenuous attempts to raise our latest concerns in a way that was discreet and proper, the majority response has been to shoot the messenger rather than face the awkward message.

We believe that the implementation of this strategy is a major factor in the demise of organic awareness, and the general confusion around what the Soil Association is, what it stands for, and what it does. In particular we would note the following:

1. Demise of organic awareness

  • The avoidance, wherever possible, of the 'O' word in preference to 'nature-friendly' and 'planet-friendly' substitutes.
  • A reluctance to use the 'O' word in relation to the Soil Association and its activities.
  • The emphasis on 'starting where people are' which leads to confusing messages and uncomfortable compromises. An example here is the use of a long-standing organic slogan 'Food you can trust' to promote the 'Food For Life Catering Mark' when its standards depart in important respects from Soil Association organic standards.
  • The widespread confusion resulting from compromised positions.
  • The tendency to 'infantilise' the organic message in major campaigns.
  • The policy of 'pick and mix' organics, which undermines informed understanding of organic principles.

2. Subordination and dilution of the organic message to a healthy eating message

  • Food For Life and the Catering Mark messaging is given prominence and is becoming the preferred 'voice' of the Soil Association.
  • The shift in focus to position the Soil Association as a public health delivery organization rather than the UK's main organic food and farming organisation.

3. The Soil Association's public profile

  • A PR void at senior management level, and loss of an authoritative voice.
  • The Soil Association is no longer the 'go-to' place for media on food and farming matters.
  • The Soil Association lacks political clout on national farming matters.

4. A dull and uninspiring image

  • The evident lack of appeal to younger consumers, for example, as highlighted in a recent survey conducted by MMR Research Worldwide.
  • A safe, cautious, controversy-averse image, pre-occupied with being all things to all men and with an over -arching 'soft sell'.
  • The substitution of vague promises for meaningful inspirational targets.
  • The lack of 'fire in the belly' campaigns and conviction in its own beliefs.
  • The policy - as seen in the Soil Association's daily News Digest - of attaching itself to others' coat tails to 'walk the talk'.

5. The inward looking and parochial nature of the Soil Association

  • Too focused on its own achievements.
  • A lack of engagement with the wider organic world.
  • Inadequate  promotion of the success of the organic movement globally to help build general consumer/farming confidence.

6. Membership issues

  • Membership of the Soil Association continues to decline.
  • Members are undervalued in comparison to external 'stakeholders'.
  • The evolution of Living Earth into a lightweight lifestyle magazine instead of an intelligent publication that inspires and informs.
  • 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 pro-active strategy, in either the farming or the consumer arena, to capitalise on the upturn of organic sales and to champion overtly organic food.

Comments received

During the preparation of this document we spoke confidentially to various people from across the spectrum of farmers, growers, producers and consumers. We include some comments we received (unattributed) for background purposes:

  • "The SA is too prepared to jump on bandwagons rather than focusing on what it says it believes in."
  • "Its content seems to be news-led rather than setting the agenda."
  • "The SA is not explaining why organic is a good thing for people; they've lost their way."
  • "The SA failed to make organic different and has been too keen to keep mainstream agriculture onside."
  • "I haven't a clue what organic stands for any more. The SA is not on my radar, I never hear about it. I'm no longer certified, but keep in touch with growers and all they do is moan about certification."
  • "We need more consumer education. The SA is failing in this - people don't know what organic is."
  • "I hear a lot of frustration from growers and farmers. Certification is laborious and expensive for small producers - who constantly moan about it, and feel they are unfairly treated."
  • "The SA needs to go out on a limb to defend organic philosophy and values. No one will thank it in 20 years time for being safe, for not sticking its head above the parapet, for avoiding difficult conversations or for striving to be a healthy eating charity - of which we already have many."
  • "Organic is dying. The SA are failing in their duty to educate and explain what organic food and farming is all about - no-one knows what organic means; if this continues the organic movement will fade away."
  • "The SA is diluting its message and spreading itself too far and wide: I couldn't give you a definition of who the SA is now and what the SA stands for."
  • "The SA has failed to make organic different and has been too keen to keep mainstream agriculture onside."
  • "Campaigning organizations need to lead from the front. It's not the easy stuff that counts, it's the difficult decisions where you need to take a stand - that's what people respect you for, and that's where the SA ducks out."
  • "The more SA embraces non-organic organizations, the more difficult it is for devoted producers, some of whom feel that it's treachery; they feel let down and abandoned."
  • "Large non-organic organizations don't want the SA to campaign for organics, because it makes them look bad - the SA defer to this, which tarnishes their organic image and credentials."
  • "Why is the campaigning for organic being left to the OTB? The current work being done by the OTB is very low level and just doesn't work."
  • "The SA effectively heads up the organic movement in the UK; indeed, historically, it is largely responsible for creating it. That carries a huge responsibility. It is the Mother Ship. It cannot cast it off and destroy it for its own short-term aims - and that's what I see happening. If the organic movement dies in the UK, the SA will be responsible and history will judge it accordingly."


Right of reply: Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association, responds in 'The Soil Association's mission is organic - and it always will be!'.

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