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 www.soilassociation.org.
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
Explain "vegetable box
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
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
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: www.hdra.org.uk)
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
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
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
Fair Trade at home and abroad
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.