Rob Haward - 05 March 2012
Phil Bloomer from Oxfam has urged the organic movement to be more open to build alliances and share views with proponents of other types of farming systems. This must be regarded as sound advice in the face of ever increasing threats on global resources. But the organic movement may face its own problems with this approach – it is a difficult balance to be conciliatory and productive on the one hand, while being critical of poor practice on the other.
I first became involved in organic food and farming 14 years ago. Things have changed a little since then. My first presentation, in 1998, to a group of non-organic growers aimed at encouraging them to convert was met with bouts of hysterical laughter that were triggered by the sheer absurdity of the prospect of farming without chemicals. Fourteen years on and many of these sceptics are now farming organically or have adopted practices commonly deployed on organic farms (like rotations and green manures) to improve their conventional approach. These improvements should be applauded. In return organic farming practice has improved significantly over the last 14 years through having skilled new entrants joining.
But the threat of mega livestock farms demonstrates that some conventional practices that defy natural logic and fly in the face of consumer instinct are still being pushed through as ‘solutions for the future’. The difficult path that the Soil Association has to tread is how to criticise systems that justify criticism without alienating conventional farming as whole. I hope that the Soil Association can perhaps tread this path more deftly than it has done in the past. The food we eat and the way it’s produced needs this critical eye and there is nothing quite like influencing consumer behaviour to drive innovation. With this in mind, how should the Soil Association interact and integrate with the wider conventional farming community so that the best of our combined knowledge can contribute to a sustainable future of food production?
Rob is Managing Director at Riverford where he spends his time running its national box scheme.
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There are some practices that must be challenged. As you imply, the public have the right to know how their food is produced; only then can they actively influence the future direction that agriculture takes.
Educating the public about the impacts that their food choices have will necessitate greater transparency and openness. Take a look at the food packaging on any supermarket shelf – particularly meat – and you won't see real images of how the food was produced. Instead, you'll often find picture-perfect bucolic farm scenes and potentially misleading marketing terms. I often wonder what would happen if food manufacturers were required to include an image of the farm that the meat came from – especially for intensively-reared pork, poultry and eggs.
I also wonder just how interested some of the more industrial food producers and processors are in allowing greater public scrutiny of their operations. In the U.S., new legislation was recently passed in Iowa which makes it illegal for a person to gain employment under false pretences at a farm or food processor for the purpose of taking photographs or videos of potential animal welfare abuses, poor working conditions and other poor practices. This new legislation was proposed on the basis that farms are being targeted by animal rights and extremist vegan activists who want to end all livestock farming, and that much of the abuse is actually being staged. Others see such legislation as a thinly veiled attempt by the industrial farming lobby to prevent any public scrutiny of the realities of industrial farming.
The simple fact is that cheap food costs and it is the Soil Association's founding role to challenge the status quo and to present the sustainable alternative. While the organic movement obviously shouldn’t go looking for a fight, part of this process will be to educate consumers about the real costs of intensive farming – particularly cheap meat. In light of the urgent social and environmental challenges we now face, and the immense lobbying power that the intensive food industry has at its disposal, telling a few home truths and ruffling a few (caged) feathers is a price I am willing to pay.
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