Great Britain's premier organic farming group holds its biannual conference in early January

Soil Association members meet to discuss everything from potato blight to Fair Trade to GM contamination

By Judy Steele

Mellow stone, rowdy crowd: Soil Association conference attendees file into Royal College of Agriculture buildings, where they engage in hot debates about labeling, contamination and more.






For more on the Soil Association . . .

Check out their website at

While you're there, take a look at the "shop" section, and then click on "magazines" for an overview of the magazines the Soil Association publishes.




Explain "vegetable box scheme", please

We asked Judy Steele if a "vegetable box scheme" was the equivalent of a subscription farm or CSA. Turns out it's neither. Here's what Judy told us:

"I am afraid we really haven't taken to the subscription farming idea in this country. People here just will not commit themselves that far in advance. There are a few instances, but not many. A vegetable box scheme generally entails no forward commitment on the part of the consumer, although they will usually receive a box unless they ring up to opt out, and they usually only pay each week. We also find that when UK produce is at its absolute peak in August everyone disappears on holiday, and numbers reduce. Box schemes are organised in different ways in different areas. Sometimes there is just the farmer with, say, 150 customers who delivers personally to several central houses. The people who act as collection points generally receive free vegetables themselves. Sometimes, as in the larger schemes, it's more formally arranged, with the collection point people acting more as sales people, and with their own collection points beneath them. The boxes generally are packed in different sizes and at different prices to suit household sizes."

















A joint fair trade/
organic label in the UK comes with responsibilities: farmers will be expected to play a central role in the cultural and social life of their communities, offering profit sharing for employees, support of and participation in research, acting as a demonstration farm, supporting recycling programs, local marketing of produce, and support for community cultural activities.


















Topics covered at
the Soil Association conference

We asked Judy Steele to send us a list of agricultural workshops at the conference so that we could get a sense of the farming issues that concern UK producers. Here's a partial list:

  • controlling livestock parasites and diseases
  • learning from biodynamic farming models
  • producer cooperation
  • the future of UK dairy farming: marketing, dairy coops, processing and packing
  • organic poultry
  • challenges facing organic growers
  • organic stewardship: who pays for the wider environmental benefits of organic farming
  • minimizing cultivation
  • going native: future breeds and breeding strategies for beef, sheep and pigs














Author Judy Steele grew up on a large farm which her father managed. After a degree in English, marriage and two children, she trained as a journalist and worked on the UK's main farming paper Farmers Weekly for six years, reporting on farm diversification enterprises and on issues which affect farming families.

She has always been an organic gardener, and left Farmers Weekly 1993 and gradually began to concentrate on reporting organic issues. This included producing the news pages for New Farmer and Grower, the Soil Association's organic farming magazine. She also worked part-time on an organic market garden.

In 1998 she joined HDRA, sister organisation of the Rodale Institute in the UK, which researches organic farming and promotes organic food, farming and gardening. (Visit the website at: There she became editor of the charity's new-look magazine The Organic Way. She is now freelancing again part-time, and hopes to have more time for her vegetable and flower garden.










"John Davenport from Herefordshire has grown organic potatoes for 18 years, and has not used copper for the past two. His blight control strategies are based on experience and observation. He uses wide spacing and chooses 'second early' varieties which mature earlier than the main crop, and can produce a crop before blight strikes."

January 14, 2003: Mellow Cotswold stone buildings with snow-covered roofs stand out sharply against a bright blue sky. The temperature is icy, and noisy space heaters are running full tilt in a huge marquee which fills a courtyard in the centre of the main building. The frosty weather can¹t diminish the energising buzz caused by several hundred delegates, although the experienced ones are swaddled in their thickest and brightest sweaters.

They have gathered at the Royal College of Agriculture, Cirencester, Gloucestershire, England, where the National Conference on Organic Food and Farming, is held every other year over the first weekend after Christmas. For as long as anyone can remember, it¹s been cold at the Cirencester conferences, and 2003 is no different. The weather has changed overnight from mild, wet, rain which has caused more of the increasingly common English floods, to crisp and frosty days and below-zero night-time temperatures.

These conferences are organised by the Soil Association, Great Britain¹s premier organic farming organisation, which also certifies the majority of organic farms in the UK. The weekends offer three days of reflection and debate on the burning issues which affect the organic movement. They¹re also a chance to get together with friends from the other end of the country, to renew acquaintances, to meet new people, and to party. The art exhibition, classical music concert, formal dinner, disco and ceilidh [barn dance] are all regarded as an important part of the conference experience.

In recognition of the financial pressures on organic farmers at the moment, sponsors this year provided 100 subsidised places for farmers and growers. The grower delegates ranged from a woman in charge of a one-acre walled garden at a Wiltshire hotel to the man who runs the largest vegetable box scheme in the country. Combine these with scientific researchers, food processors, retailers, consumers and journalists and you have a heady and talkative mixture. You could easily meet an expert in potato blight, a weed control researcher, a composting expert, an arable [grain and grass, no livestock] farmer, a livestock farmer and a vegetable grower in the same lunch hour.

Fair Trade at home and abroad

"We have a fear chain, not a food chain,¹ said Peter Melchett. the Soil Association's Policy Director. 'Everyone is afraid of losing out." He's referring to the fact that supermarkets in Great Britain exert a downward pressure on food prices through bullying tactics and non-binding contracts.

The theme of the conference this year was Fair Trade food, and the Soil Association and the Fair Trade Foundation, the UK¹s Fair Trade certification body, launched a one-year pilot project at the conference which links the Fair Trade and organic certification marks [labels]. It also aims to extend the plan to producers in the UK for the first time.

The organisations also aim to make it simpler for all producers to apply for the symbols simultaneously. Many speakers including The Prince of Wales, who addressed the conference via a video message, and Soil Association President Jonathan Dimbleby, supported the initiative.

The first jointly certified fresh product under the new scheme is likely to be organic grapes from South Africa, followed by potatoes from the UK, green beans and citrus fruits from Egypt. Beef, pork and lamb from the UK should follow, and the organisations hope that UK dairy products may also be included.

The initiative aims to get a fair price for farmers, covering the cost of production plus a margin for profit and investment. Buyers are expected to commit to a long term relationship with primary producers. Peter Melchett said that this should extend for at least three years.

(Melchett is Policy Director at the Soil Association. He has been a government minister, executive director of Greenpeace and many other illustrious jobs. You might have heard of him going to court over damage to GM crops. He is an organic farmer in the East of England.)

The UK¹s fresh produce industry is dominated by the major supermarket retailers, who handle the lion¹s share of organic fruit and vegetables. Farmers often claim that they are subjected to bullying tactics, non-binding contracts and a downward pressure on prices. This year both conventional and organic farmers have been suffering, and some organic products have been sold at below the cost of production when they would normally command a premium price. There have been reports of crops such as cabbages and lettuces being ploughed in.

"We have a fear chain, not a food chain," said Peter Melchett. "Everyone is afraid of losing out." The Soil Association and the Fair Trade Foundation hope to be able to influence the trading practices which are contributing to this fear.

Both organisations acknowledge the difficulties of bringing the scheme to the UK. There are great differences between the farmer in Africa or Brazil who can¹t afford to send her children to school, or to get medical treatment for the family, unless she gets a fair price for her products, and a UK farmer, who has access to these services through state provision, as well as many other advantages. It may be that developing country farmers find it hard to accept that there is any need for Fair Trade marks in the UK, and this is one of the challenges that the scheme has to address.

The Fair Trade logo comes with responsibilities as well as benefits. In the UK, farmers will be expected to play a central role in the cultural and social life of their communities, and society in general, said Peter Melchett. Examples are profit sharing for employees, public education, support of and participation in research, acting as a demonstration farm, supporting recycling programmes, local marketing of produce, and support for community cultural activities. "Even small farms will be expected to meet at least three of these criteria, larger farms up to six," said Melchett.

GM and the law
Background GM crops are not yet being grown commercially in the UK. The decision to grow commercially will, in theory, not be made until after the series of controversial field scale trials of crops such as maize, sugar beet and canola [rapeseed] is completed this year.

Almost every trial has suffered damage by protestors who believe that the introduction of GM crops, particularly in the heavily farmed landscape of the UK, will lead to widespread contamination and an increase in pesticide use. They do not feel that the crops have been tested thoroughly or independently enough for their effects on the environment, for example on soil bacteria, insects and wildlife or on animal and human health to be correctly estimated. They are not happy that the trials are adequately addressing these issues. Some organisations, such as the Soil Association are calling for a total ban, others such as Friends of the Earth, want a five-year moratorium [They belong to the Five Year Freeze Campaign.]

The Soil Association¹s membership section has campaigned against GM since before the first shipment of GM soya beans arrived in the UK. A special workshop session at the conference on Sunday morning, reported below, updated delegates on legal challenges to the crops, and on the legal situation as it affects UK organic farmers.

Workshop report: Canadian class action
Organic farmers in Canada estimate that they have lost 14 million dollars in organic canola sales because of GM contamination, said special guest Arnold Taylor, president of the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate (SOD).

Contamination, which even reached the seed stocks, has effectively stopped Saskatchewan organic farmers from growing canola, and deprived them of a valuable crop in the rotation. If GM wheat is introduced, the estimated losses are 170-200 million dollars, said Arnold Taylor.

SOD has launched a class action on behalf of all the organic grain farmers in Saskatchewan calling for compensation for damage incurred since GM canola was released into the environment, and for an injunction to prevent GM wheat being introduced. If the action is to be successful, the Saskatchewan farmers needed financial help from all over the world. A collection at the conference showed a good level of support from the UK organic movement.

In jail for GM protest

Jailed for GM: Donnie Macleod, pictured here asking a question at a Soil Association session, is a Scottish farmer who considers protesting the introduction of GM crops into Great Britain a civic duty.

Spending 12 days in prison for contempt of court during a hearing about GM protests was worthwhile, said Donnie Macleod, who farms organically near the site of a trial of GM canola at Munlochy in the Scottish Highlands. The case generated a huge amount of press publicity, particularly in Scotland.

Donnie Macleod was the first person to be jailed in the UK after a GM protest. He had not been arrested for uprooting the crop, but for refusing to say whether he recognised any of the protestors in court who were responsible for flattening part of the GM canola field into a huge "X" shape ­- the UK anti-GM symbol. The crop has been repeatedly damaged, and the protestors have the support of their local community and the Highlands Council [local government body for the area].

Donnie Macleod said that choice was at stake: people wanted to be able to choose GM-free food. "All over the world food and farming are at a crossroads," he said. "The only way we could lose is if choice is taken away from us."

Freedom carried a responsibility, he said, and he felt there was a responsibility to continue direct action against GM crops. He also pointed out that public resources were being used against the protestors, who felt they were acting in the public interest. The tractor travelling to the field to plant the GM crop had been accompanied by a police escort, and he claimed that police resources were being used against the community¹s wishes.

Who¹s responsible for contamination?
The legal situation on GM contamination of organic crops in the UK is still unclear, said Sarah Burton, who has worked on GM law for some time.

Recently an organic farmer had bought livestock feed certified organic, but which proved to be contaminated with GM material. Working according to European Union Law, the Soil Association¹s barrister [lawyer] had advised that chickens fed on this feed must lose their organic status.

The supplier of the feed was in breach of his contract, and could be sued by the farmer. But the supplier had sold the feed in good faith, and it was not clear who he could sue for the damage to his business.

However, if the case concerned contamination from a growing crop, there was no hope of compensation for an organic farmer under UK law, even though substantial losses had occurred, said Sarah Burton. There is no contract between neighbouring farmers, and the only law that could be used would be the Law of Nuisance. She did not believe this could be used effectively. The judge in court would be being asked to choose between two systems that were inimical, and if GM crops were being legally grown, he or she would not be allowed to choose. Evidence would be a problem. Someone would have to be identified as responsible, but who would that be ­- the neighbouring farmer, a negligent contractor, or a company responsible for seed purity?

However, Sarah Burton felt that it was not too late for some legal protection to be built into the law if the UK Government does decide to go ahead with commercialisation. A strict liability regime could be put in place. The only way to do this would be to make the owner of the GM patent liable for the contamination of, or loss of, any crop, because that was the only party that could always be identified without question.

This type of law exists in other areas, and it would place the risks with the companies who have most to gain from the successful introduction of GM crops. Lobbying groups should introduce this idea to the decision makers, she said.

Casting out copper compounds
Growers and farmers at the Cirencester conference are ready to stop using copper compounds to combat disease on annual crops.

Copper was due to be discontinued in March 2002, but most organic certifiers, including the Soil Association, argued for its continued use. It is now allowed until 2006, when the application rates will be gradually reduced until it is phased out, but no deadline has been set.

In the UK copper is used almost exclusively to combat potato blight, which is the single most important disease affecting organic farming in the country. In the rest of Europe it is used on perennial crops such as vines and tree fruit, and so far there is nothing that can replace it.

Copper is often cited by the forces ranged against organic agriculture in the UK as being a more dangerous chemical than the ones it replaces. Rob Haward, the Soil Association¹s Producer Services Manager, and chair of the Horticultural Standards Committee, acknowledged that copper was an "Achilles heel" which is toxic to earthworms in high doses, and accumulates in the soil.

Speakers at the workshop put forward many ideas for combating potato blight without using copper.

All agreed that blight-resistant varieties offered the best defence. David Shaw of the Sàrvàri Trust has been working with Sàrpo varieties of potato for 15 years. They were bred in Hungary specifically for resistance to both tuber and foliage blight, and he has photos of devastated conventional varieties alongside green and thriving Sàrpo plantings.

They come in a range of colours and dry matter contents to suit a variety of markets, and should be available for planting in the UK in 2004.

The Blight MOP project, which is being carried out by seven European countries, is looking at a range of possible blight controls. Professor Steve Wilcockson of the Tesco Centre of Organic Agriculture, Newcastle, is co-ordinating the project. As well as looking at resistant varieties, the project is testing the effect of compost and plant extracts, which are showing some potential.

Martin Wolfe of Elm Farm Research Centre, Berkshire, has been trialling varietal mixes as part of the project. He believes the spread of blight can be reduced by planting a number of varieties in say, one-acre plots mixed throughout a 20-acre field,. He has also experimented with planting a random mixture of varieties, which he believes couldw be effective, but which would be hard to market under existing regulations, as potatoes must be sold in bags of a single named variety.

John Davenport from Herefordshire has grown organic potatoes for 18 years, and has not used copper for the past two. His blight control strategies are based on experience and observation. He uses wide spacing and chooses Œsecond early¹ varieties which mature earlier than the main crop, and can produce a crop before blight strikes.

Although a majority at the workshop were happy to do without copper, those from the South-west of the UK, where blight occurs earlier in the season, had serious reservations. Mr Haward will report the conclusions of the workshop to the Horticultural Standards Committee.