Soil Association seeks new areas

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

The GM debate has become tedious, complained Helen Browning
The GM debate has become tedious, complained Helen Browning

Related tags Public health Organic food Soil association

Soil Association boss Helen Browning will push the organisation forward, she tells Nicholas Robinson

Key points

Helen Browning, the chief executive of the Soil Association (SA), is presently having to deal with flak resulting from the resignation of some very embittered trustees.

The 68-year-old organisation she’s headed for the past four years has recently faced some serious accusations against its core values and image from within its own ranks.

Four trustees resigned in December 2014 in protest against the direction in which the organisation was being taken. In a scathing letter, the now ex-trustees called the SA’s image “dull” ​and “insipid”.​ They accused bosses of abandoning the SA’s core focus and roots, saying it failed to support homeopathy for animals and was too corporate – they even alleged the charity had disowned organic in favour of other projects.

It’s clear why the four launched their caustic attack. Browning is moving the SA into new areas covering the role of organic food in improving nutrition and public health and she’s unrepentant about this.

“There’s always more we can do, the SA has got so much potential to do amazing things,”​ Browning says at the charity’s Bristol base. “The SA sits right in the middle of the things I care about farming, nutrition and public health.”

A small group of farmers, scientists and nutritionists founded the SA in 1946 to seek solutions to problems like soil erosion and depletion; the decreased nutritional quality of food; the exploitation of animals; and intensification.

Growth (Return to top)

It has come a long way from its beginnings on a Suffolk farm and now employs over 150 staff at its Bristol and Edinburgh offices. The SA’s reach has grown to include organic certification for foods, clothing and beauty products.

Unquestionably, it has moved its focus beyond the farm gate and is attempting to become bigger in many other areas. “We’ve got much more involved in public health,”​ Browning says. “We work in more than 4,500 schools which are enrolled in our Food for Life programme, which educates children about food.”

Its catering mark rewards caterers for taking steps to improve the food they serve and the SA organises two annual awards the SA Organic Awards and the Natural and Organic Awards to celebrate the sector’s achievements. “This is us expanding our reach and that’s what we need to do to up our game and the impact of the organisation,”​ she adds.

Despite Browning’s desire to push the SA into new areas, she is conscious it mustn’t forget its roots. “At the start of this year we’re going to get back to the soil and engage with our farming communities,” ​she says. “We started off there and it’s important we go back to looking at things like soil quality and erosion.”

Meanwhile, the organisation has been criticised by the four ex-trustees for leaving its organic focus behind. Browning, however, has plans to boost organic crop production.

Organic land use in the UK in 2013 had declined by 7.3% on the previous year to 606,629ha. Browning admits this is a concern: “There is no growth on the farmer level; there are acreage losses; and the number of farmers in the sector has reduced in the past three years.”​ There are currently 6,487 organic producers and processors in the UK.

Browning vows to stem this decline. “We’re going to give farmers the data to allow them to see the potential for growth in organic sales, as well as the economics,”​ she says. “We can’t make them farm organically, we can only give them the information to promote it.”

While a number of farmers have abandoned the cause, consumers appear to be rediscovering an interest in organic food. Sales of organic food rose by 2.8% to £1.79bn in 2013, compared with the previous year and during ‘Organic September’ last year, sales totalled more than £100M, she says. Organic’s growth spurt was a surprise for Browning and those in the sector, as it had suffered five years of decline until 2013.

Sourcing concerns (Return to top)

It’s a worry that manufacturers might not be able to source enough organic produce to manufacture products and keep up with the increase in demand, she warns. “We could see shortages in the organic supply chain in a couple of years if more farmers don’t get involved.”

The economic downturn was blamed for the five-year decline in sales but, now the recession is over, consumers are returning to organic, Browning adds. It is also argued by some in the sector that more consumers are attracted by its perceived health benefits, but this isn’t right, Browning argues.

Even when faced with recent research published in the British Journal of Nutrition​ last year by Professor Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University, who claimed organic crops were more nutritious than non-organic, she says there isn’t a direct link between organics and health.

“You have to be careful about health claims,”​ she says. “The Newcastle study was based on a meta analysis and you can’t make health claims on the back of that. What we can say is that organic techniques are improving the nutritional content and antioxidant content of produce.”

While nutritional properties of organics may be open for debate, Browning flatly dismisses any role for genetically modified (GM) foods. In fact, she’s “sick”​ of talking about GM, she says.

Browning refuses to countenance any role for GM in feeding the earth’s growing population, despite many scientists and other industry leaders claiming otherwise. The SA’s steadfast stance on GM has led it to be considered as an organisation that's negative about some areas of scientific development, she admits.

GM is a ‘tedious debate’ (Return to top)

So, if GM isn’t the answer to fighting crop disease, longer growing seasons and growing more produce in less space, then what is her solution?

“The GM debate has been tedious and it’s not even relevant to the future of farming. It’s a very small part of the mix and new technology – such as better breeding and gene mapping – is available that can take over,”​ she argues. “We need to be thinking more about crop rotations, crop management and better breeding.”

Consumers are inherently nervous about GM now and they don’t think it’s safe, she claims, which has a lot to do with campaigns led by organisations such as the SA. “I don’t think GM will ever be a big part of the UK food industry – it’s a very contaminated issue and I can’t see any food business promoting and selling it,”​ she claims.

Arguments about GM and the nutritional value of organics will inevitably rumble on. But Browning wants to move the debate into new areas. And she plans to stay put until she fulfils her mission of seeing the SA make more of an impact on public health, especially in hospitals and schools.

“I’m not going anywhere soon; there are a lot of things that I want to achieve here and we’ve got a long way to go before it’s done,” ​she says.

Organics in the UK (Return to top)

  •  £1.79bn worth of organic produce was bought in 2013
  •  6,487 firms produce or process organic products in the UK
  •  11% of organic foods are sold through box schemes
  •  10% of organic foods are sold in the foodservice

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