Thursday, August 02, 2007

The tyranny of the Soil Association

There's a striking piece in today's Times about the plight of African organic farmers.

In recent times, the boom in organic produce has proved to be a lifeline for many otherwise-poor African producers. Since becoming a certified organic farmer, one Kenyan told the paper, "since then, life has improved for us...Prices are better than for conventional farming."

There is a growing threat on the horizon. Much as western consumers have learned to appreciate the healthy benefits to us and the environment of the organic way, so we are beginning to be aware of our carbon footprints. And I find myself feeling guilty when my Tesco asparagus has been shipped in from Peru. This issue goes to the heart of two primary goals of the Labour Government - both to reduce poverty in developing countries, and to combat global warming.

As the article in the Times makes clear, this dilemma is about to be exploited by the Soil Association, which has within it wealthy UK organic producers who feel threatened by foreign imports. The SA is now getting ready to remove the 'organic' classification from imported veg.

To be fair to the SA, they have been conducting a debate, and there's a range of views on their website. It seems likely, however, that the SA is preparing for a general or selective ban on the organic status of produce from Africa and South America flown to the UK.

It is, as the Kenyans point out, simply a non-tariff barrier to trade - a ruse to protect big UK organic producers from the competition of poorer Third World farmers. And it stinks.

My solution? - multiple chains like Tesco and Morrisons should be able to tell us whether a particular product has been organically produced without the interference of the SA. We trust the supermarkets to tell us how much protein, carbohydrates and saturated fat is in a bag of apples - why not how it's been produced too?

If the Soil Association is determined to behave like a UK cartel it should receive short shrift from consumers. Perhaps now it has outlived its usefulness.


Mike Barker said...

This is a real dilemma, but I do think your anti-Soil Association stance is a bit extreme.
Would you really trust Tesco to check that everything that is sold as "organic" really is? I wouldn't! Would they set up an inspection and verification unit which can ensure that "organic" really means "organic"? I doubt it.
The Soil Association, for example, is currently holding out against the British Government, which wants to allow more Genetically Modified contamination of organic food. The SA intends to keep to its 0.1% maximum level of contamination. The Government wants to allow that to increase to 0.9%. Why?
The Soil Association is an independent, non-profit making body which verifies about 80% of the organic food sold in the UK. Their interest is in maintaining the purity of organic produce, so that customers can trust what they buy. Tesco's interest is in selling as much as possible in order to maximise profit: a little watering-down of organic standards would suit Tesco, but would betray everything the true organic movement stands for.
I am touched by your trust in Tesco - though a little concerned that you choose to shop there!
There is a growing "local food" movement in this country, which encourages small British producers to grow and supply their produce to consumers, either through Farmers' Markets or through the retail trade.
One thing holding back this movement from selling through the supermarkets is competition from cheap imports around the world, flown here with no regard for environmental concerns, undercutting local producers.
But then we have the dilemma: how, at the same time, do we support the poorer farmers in the third world?
The problem is, these are very often not "poor" farmers at all, but large food producers who certainly don't operate under a Fair Trade banner.
The supermarkets don't want to deal with a multiplicity of small native producers: they want guaranteed, cheap, production and ease of purchase, an this means dealing mainly with large producers.
If you want to support genuine small farmers in the Third World, do it through the Fair Trade movement, not by supporting the big food producers.
Trusting both Tesco and Rupert Murdoch's Times - doesn't sound like a recipe for socialist advance!

Aeres said...

I think I'm somewhere in between the two of you.

Firstly, letting a supermarket that exists purely for creating shareholder value would turn the term organic into a marketing tool rather than a piece of consumer information. For example, for years we've had products branded as being 'low fat' - which is true enough, but half the time they're full of sugar and often could be argued to be more 'unhealthy' than other full fat products.

Speaking as somebody who works for an extremely large PLC you can take it from me that all the stuff about corporate responsibility and suchlike mentioned by Tesco in the article is absolute hogwash. Only one thing counts, and that's the bottom line when the annual profits come through. Nothing is quite how it seems when the big PLC's seem to be caring and responsible. Big firms have PR departments to make sure that everybody knows how much they've given to charity, invested in the community, etc, etc.

By this then, I think an independent organisation has a valid job to do. However, I would suggest that that food miles and transportation most certainly do not come under their remit of defining the word organic. As far as I'm aware, the term is there to provide information to the consumer about how food is grown and they should stick to that remit.

I do, however, have my doubts whether the Soil Association is best placed to do this role. It's my understanding that it is an association of farmers and suchlike and therefore, much like Tesco really, they are hardly independent themselves.

As always, I probably come to the table with these arguments rather naively as a 'man in the street' but for what it's worth I would have thought that a governmental body, under the responsibility of Defra, would be better placed to provide one standard policy of food labelling (organic, fat, carbohydrate, sodium, daily recommended nutrients, food miles, etc, etc, etc) and to stick to it.