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The next few days are likely to see a media bombardment on organic food and farming. The signs are there of a co-ordinated media campaign, building up to ensure a maximum of exposure and probably linked to a fundraising drive. How well the successful lessons from Greenpeace have been learnt: a £300m a year worldwide income, raised on the back of propagating often irrational fears. But where is the organic farming movement going with this media assault - and do you feel well informed?
Last week the Soil Association called for the banning of lasalocid in poultry feed, a preventive treatment against coccidiosis. Their case rested on tests by the Government's Veterinary Medicines Directorate, which found traces of the drug in 2.6 per cent of samples of eggs and poultry and 60 per cent of quail eggs. They went on to suggest that there was a potential for harm to humans from this residue (little evidence was provided) and castigated the small number of eggs used in the tests. By the untested logic of much of the organic world, the Soil Association asserts that the management conditions provided through organic standards obviate the need for prophylactic measures such as lasalocid. In response, British egg producers have consistently pointed out that lasalocid is not used in poultry feed for egg layers. You might wonder why the Soil Association has nothing useful to say about the higher incidence of campylobacter in organic chickens.
For those in the know, poultry is a particular bugbear of the Soil Association because they only have a 20% share of the poultry certification market compared to the 80% they enjoy in other certification areas. Partly this is due to pragmatism on the part of poultry farms in not choosing necessarily to jump higher hurdles in cost than they have to. But not to let this get in the way, the Soil Association sent poaching letters to all members of Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G) - who currently certify the majority of poultry and egg producers - encouraging them to defect to the Soil Association. Fortunately for OF&G this backfired and their membership numbers have increased. OF&G might like to know that they have been targeted by the Soil Association for a numbers of years now. Internal Soil Association Council documents from 1997 name and disparage individual OF&G staff, and indicate an approach to aggressively compete to put OF&G out of business. While you might interpret this as no more than bravado, you might wonder whether this is a sentiment that sits comfortably within a national charity.
Thick skinned as usual, and never one to let failure get in their way, the Soil Association then set about a campaign to absorb the Scottish Organic Producers Association (SOPA). Their high handed approach resulted in a public spat between certification bodies (reported in The Scotsman), with the Soil Association retreating to their dugout, but sending their usual letter of encouragement to defect to the 570 SOPA members.
SOPA is confident they can beat off this encroachment and were sufficiently moved to refer the Soil Association to the Office of Fair Trading. Many others have also questioned the state of cross-financing between the Soil Association, which has charitable status, and its wholly-owned commercial trading subsidiary, Soil Association Certification - more of which later. SOPA may like to know that the senior member of staff responsible for certification openly informed me six years ago that it was his ambition to obtain a monopoly for the Soil Association in the certification market. That person is still there.
Monday saw the typical name and shame approach of the Organic Targets campaign for the private members bill. Like the Five Year Freeze campaign before (anti-biotechnology) this is the political correctness that seeks to enforce conformity and which allows a pillorying of those not yet signed up. The supermarkets Tesco's and Safeway were the pariahs this time, who were being shamed in the press on the word of a hyperactive campaigner from SUSTAIN. Tesco's somewhat reasonable argument was that they operate in a market place, including their selling of organic food, and were cautious about signing up to the campaign because they believe production should be market-led. They also didn't believe it is for them to dictate to government how the organic market should be taken forward. Some of you may wonder why the government should be urged to set targets for a minority form of agriculture when it should be setting targets for all of our agriculture.
In an unfortunate turn of events, the shallowness of the organic movement when it comes to supermarkets (and much else besides, but also see later) was revealed the day before when it was reported that the Soil Association's Director had suppressed a report critical of supermarket pricing on organic food. He said it sent out the wrong message by effectively encouraging supermarkets to lower their prices, which would squeeze organic producers' profits and threaten them with bankruptcy. So, organic food IS about market economics? And an organisation with charitable status is able to both promote a commercial operation and financially benefit from it. I don't think the public see charities in that light.
The author of the critical study accused the Soil Association of being "too busy trying not to upset the supermarkets". And there is a good reason for this because the Soil Association makes an awful lot of money out of them. What people probably don't realise is that certification is not just involved in inspecting farms, it is also involved in the importing, handling, distribution, processing and retailing of organic food. Thus a certification body can make money all the way from the field to your mouth. This also sheds some light on why the Soil Association have never made much of an effort to redress the huge trade imbalance in organic food as they get multiple incomes irrespective of where it comes from. Ah yes, I hear you say, but the trade imbalance is due to the massive upsurge in demand for organic food. Sorry, another myth that the Soil Association are happy to let develop. Keen observers of history will note that I was re-elected to the Soil Association council in 1997 on the back of a platform of frustration that such a trade deficit had existed for years. Now when did the current boom in organic food sales take off?
Wednesday will see the public demonstration in London in support of the Organic Targets campaign. No points for being the first to spot someone dressed as a vegetable. Or that there will be a significant presence from the anti-biotechnology campaigners. How convenient that this is the week when the Soil Association will be holding their annual conference - Harrogate gets it this year and I do wonder whether OF&G members in Yorkshire are the expected quarry? Either way, we are likely to be told that its all the Governments fault (irrespective of what the problem is) and that we should pay more for our food so that we can keep those nice organic farmers from bankruptcy. There is an important issue currently facing organic food in this country, but the pessimist in me suggests the Soil Association will be unlikely to encourage an open debate - the usual studied ignorance.
Here is the issue. In a review of the regulating mechanisms for organic food production in the UK, Government has come up with a proposal to disband the UK Register of Organic Farming Standards (UKROFS) and transfer its responsibilities into the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS). EU legislation codifies organic production and thus Government can't be passive in exercising a supervisory role, even though they may wonder why they should regulate such comprehensive standards in a commercial market. The Governments reasoning for the switch may be based on the fact that UKAS is a larger organisation with a wider and more experienced role in accreditation systems. On the other hand, UKROFS is at the level of one man and his dog, and it can be argued is far too close to the industry it supposedly regulates.
History has shown the problem - the Soil Association was able to get a change in standards through UKROFS that allowed the contamination of organically reared pork with sodium nitrite in the processing for bacon. The fact that a representative from Sainsbury's was there to make the case, along with the Soil Association, and the fact that individual members of the Soil Association council could profit from this change, shows again the essentially commercial nature of this situation. However, it does leave the usual acrid smell of hypocrisy when the Soil Association has characteristically condemned the proposals for UKAS to take national responsibility, but continue to take the moral high ground over standards setting.
Enjoy your week.
Mark Fisher 22 January 2002