The UK Organic Congress 2018


This is a unique event organised jointly by leading organic organisations, including the Organic Research Centre, Landworkers’ Alliance, Organic Arable, Organic Farmers & Growers, Organic Growers Alliance, Organic Trade Board, Soil Association and Whole Health Agriculture.

Thu, 15 Nov 2018, 09:00

Fri, 16 Nov 2018, 17:00 GMT 

Who should come?

The Congress is aimed at all involved in or interested in the business of organic food and farming, including:

  • farmers, growers and land managers,
  • food businesses in organic supply chains, including input suppliers, retailers and caterers,
  • professionals that engage with the sector, including consultants, land agents, bank managers and researchers,
  • government agency officials and policy-makers,
  • farming, environmental and food NGOs who work with producers and food businesses
  • and many more!

The Congress is not only for those already engaged – if you are exploring organic as an option for your future business, then this event is also for you – all are welcome!

Venue: Dunchurch Park Hotel (Rugby Road, Dunchurch, Rugby CV22 6QW) just outside Rugby, with free parking and good train connections to London, Birmingham and beyond.

Going for Growth

The UK organic food market is growing fast, at 6-7% annually, as part of a global movement for change in what we eat and how it’s produced. But we trail our European neighbours, many achieving over 20% growth and food market shares of 10%. Big opportunities exist for producers to convert to organic production, supported by a food industry responsive to consumer demand, delivering environmental as well as economic gains.

Transforming UK Organic Food and Farming

Reaffirming the potential of organic food and farming in the UK needs fresh approaches to ensure core organic principles and the expectations of citizens can be delivered. Enhancing the environmental and other public benefits of organic production while ensuring fair incomes for farmers and affordable prices for consumers is critical. As we contemplate leaving the EU, what transformations should we be seeking to make the UK an organic world leader again?

A New Vision

Underpinning organic food and farming are some big ideas about how to make a better world. The organic approach cares about things that affect us all – health, welfare, the environment, fairness, quality and sustainability. Communicating this needs a focus on real benefits, while building bridges with others. The Congress will feature a new, positive vision for the contribution that organic can make to UK food and farming, including an aspiration to be up there with the best in terms of production and market shares.

Making Change Happen

The organic sector is well placed to take a lead in the future development of UK food and farming. Organic food standards, the dynamic organic market, Food for Life, the OTB Promotion Campaigns, Innovative Farmers and the Agricology on-line information hub have shown what can be achieved collectively. The Congress will highlight the new industry-led organic action plan in England and similar initiatives in other parts of the UK in making real change happen.








Swiss farmers’ union backs food sovereignty referendum demanding fair prices, which cover the costs of production

In Britain and Switzerland, small farms are closing and larger farms are taking their place. Deregulation is benefiting middlemen and retailers but not farmers themselves. They say producers are no longer getting a fair wage and neither farmers nor consumers have benefited from the changes of the last two decades.

As imports of cheaper food rise, many people are feeling that Switzerland’s high food standards are under threat. Concerned consumers, Greens, Socialists and around 70 organizations including Slow Food Switzerland are looking for ways to ensure the sector can survive.

On September 23rd, Swiss voters will cast their ballots on two referendums on the future of the food industry. The food sovereignty initiative calls for a far more radical overhaul of the agricultural sector, with a new focus on small, family farms. The most far-reaching proposals include

  • a ban on gene technology,
  • measures to boost the number of people working in agriculture,
  • the setting of fair prices for all agricultural products
  • and higher duties and quotas for imported foodstuffs.
  • Imports of products that don’t meet Swiss standards could be banned.

Supporters of the food sovereignty initiative – a group that includes the Greens, the Socialists and around 70 other organizations including Slow Food Switzerland – say current agricultural policies are killing off the Swiss agricultural sector.

The initiative “For Food Sovereignty”, was launched by a committee set up at the instigation of the Swiss agricultural union Uniterre. It proposes measures to promote local, diversified, sustainable agriculture without genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The state should guarantee good working conditions and decent wages for people working in this sector.

Food sovereignty demands fair prices, which cover the costs of production and make it possible to get out of debt.

In Switzerland, the amount spent on a litre of milk does not allow farm families to bear all the production costs and even less the hidden costs. Only one fifth of the price pays for the work of the producers, while the rest ends up in the pockets of the big retailers. Food sovereignty can provide farmers with a fair and dignified income.

Local agriculture should be protected by levying tariffs on certain products or even banning certain imports. Food produced should meet the social and environmental expectations of the population.

Food sovereignty concerns the entire agricultural production chain: from the field to the plate and from the fork to the fork. In Switzerland, local contract farming (similar to our box schemes or community supported agriculture) is boosting the local economy by enabling job creation and the development of local products. It guarantees transparency throughout the production chain and reduces CO2 emissions caused by long-distance transport.

Smaller agricultural estates, with fewer machines and buildings, greater diversification, and a recovery of part of the food chain, will put people back on farms rather than robotizing them. In 2012 a study found that 18% of young people from urban and farming backgrounds wanted to take over a farm but access to land is limited due to speculation, competition and direct government payments based on the size of the farm rather than the number of active people.

Those opposing the proposal point out that protectionist measures would break international agreements and voice concerns about higher prices for goods because the proposal calls for elevated duties on foodstuffs that don’t meet Swiss standards. However the budget spent on food for a person living in Switzerland is actually one of the lowest in the world, between 8 and 15%, calculated according to family income. 


See a virtual tour: – pages can be translated.




Peter Melchett: a celebration

A life well-lived.

Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association was on this site’s mailing list and responded occasionally to inform, gently correct or clarify.

Of late it has been pleasing to note the Association working more closely with the Organic Research Centre since 2015 in the Innovative Farmers not-for-profit network that gives farmers research support and funding on their own terms – a very effective combination of their individual strengths. The Soil Association, Organic Research Centre and Waitrose have been partners in the programme and are now joined by LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) and Innovation in Agriculture, ensuring that the new network represents farmers and growers across the industry

Like many, including India’s Winin Pereira (Tending the Earth), he was inspired by the work of far-sighted Lady Eve Balfour, who back in the 1930s saw the dangers of chemical and industrial farming and food production and started the Soil Association the fight against those dangers. Another valued contact, David Fleming, similarly inspired, was the Soil Association chairman  from 1988-1991.  

On the SA website earlier this year, Peter recalled the best career advice he was ever given (unwittingly):

“I took part in an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration at a US Air Force Base near our farm in Norfolk in the early 1980s, and while I was giving a speech deploring the appalling risk that these weapons posed, someone called Lady Olga Maitland, with a small counter-demonstration called – I think, ‘families for the bomb’ – called out to me ‘Peter, Peter, think of your career!’.

“Immediately after that, with many others, I symbolically cut a link in the fence around the base and was arrested, and my subsequent criminal conviction helped get me a job at Greenpeace, where I worked for 15 years!”

Since 1973, he has managed the 890-acre Courtyard Farm in Norfolk, which went fully organic in 2000. The pride of the farm is herd of fine Red Poll beef cattle, an ancient local breed. Crops include barley, wheat, peas and vetch, clovers and grass. The farm is also well known for the wildlife conservation work done there over the last 50 years, and for the high level of access it affords to the public.

Peter listed some of the Soil Association’s campaigning work:

  • promoting healthy diets – particularly in schools and hospitals –
  • promoting the huge benefits of organic farming,
  • telling people why all cotton should be organic,
  • and campaigning for honesty and transparency in beauty products, and the expansion of certified organic health and beauty products.

“Our own healthy, environmentally friendly and locally sourced standards, Food for Life Served Here, now cover 1.7 million meals daily, in nurseries, schools including over half the primary schools in England, universities, hospitals, care homes, visitor attractions and workplaces”. He continued:

”One thing that still surprises me is just how secretive companies can be about products which they expect us to happily eat or spread on our bodies.

“In my lifetime, we’ve seen an explosion of information about the products we buy, how and where they are made, where the ingredients or raw materials come from, and so on. But in the areas where we work, with farming, health and beauty, and textiles, with still have a long way to go to anything like full transparency or honesty.

“Greater transparency is inevitable, and companies will come to be judged on their honesty, not the slickness of the advertising, and the Soil Association will do all we can to hasten that day”.

“We’ve had enough food scandals for people to be wary about how food is produced, and some of the concerns about ingredients used in beauty products have certainly driven the huge increase in interest in organic health and beauty products. But, this is an area where the term ‘organic’ is not protected by law, as it is with food, and we see terrible misuse, with labels suggesting products are organic when they contain ingredients which we would never allow, or contain only a tiny proportion of organic ingredients amongst the sea of non-organic.

Jonathon Porritt: Peter was a consummate campaigner (at Greenpeace and Soil Association), a wise and compassionate advocate for everything that really matters and a true friend.





Which government plans to “enforce an efficient and transparent market clearing mechanism to get fair market prices for farmers”?


The British government? No sign.

The Northern Ireland government? Under discussion.

But Pakistan states plans to get fair market prices for farmers

The prime minister in waiting of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has said in his election manifesto that his government would “enforce an efficient and transparent market clearing mechanism to get fair market prices for farmers”.

Food Tank News quotes the words of Alexander Müller (below left), study leader of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood – a UN environment initiative):

“Agriculture is arguably the highest policy priority on today’s global political agenda, in recognition of its widespread impacts on food security, employment, climate change, human health, and severe environmental degradation.”

The primary focus of his report and that of Oxfam (quoted below) is the health and environmental impact of labour-intensive farming on the workers employed. But his thoughts on true cost accounting have a bearing on the situation in this country.

He points out that a monitoring method applied more widely in the food system today is an economic model called true cost accounting, which identifies and quantifies the total cost of food and agricultural production depending on the type of farming system.

Though in Britain the situation of the dairy industry is high profile, its plight – to some extent – is shared by producers of perishable fruit, salad crops and vegetables

In 2015 the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said that only Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and the Co-op have arrangements where farmers are paid a price above the cost of production for milk.

The Bureau for the Appraisal of Social Impacts for Citizen Information (BASIC) was commissioned by Oxfam to produce their June 2018 report on supermarket supply chains. It sees shortcomings in the remit of the Groceries Supply Code of Practice (2009) and adjudicator (2013), set up by government to oversee the relationship between major supermarkets and their direct suppliers. GSCOP does not – as yet – cover whether prices are adequate and there is no feedback mechanism for indirect suppliers, though calls for its remit to be extended include one from Fairtrade (2016, 18 October). Government Must Tackle Trade Abuses Says Food Coalition.

After giving credit to the supermarkets named by the NFU (above), the report goes on to say that supermarkets could (Ed: meaning should) extend such interventions to producers in their global supply chain.

BASIC’s research for Oxfam concluded that it would be entirely possible for farmers and workers to earn a living income. The extra investment needed is marginal compared with the end consumer price – no more than 5% across its basket of 12 products.





The production impacts of a widespread conversion to organic agriculture in England and Wales

Laurence Smith (School of Water, Energy & Environment, Cranfield University & the Organic Research Centre) and colleagues assessed the production impacts of a 100% conversion to organic agriculture in England and Wales.

The abstract summarises this study, published in Elzevier’s Land Use Policy, Volume 76, July 2018, Pages 391-404. It notes that, while acknowledging the sustainability benefits and the potential for further growth in the market for organic products, some commentators have suggested that the lower yields observed in organic agriculture would mean that widespread conversion to organic production could be detrimental to food security.

Because the land area devoted to organic farming globally currently remains very small (i.e. organic farmland is approximately 1% of the total global agricultural area), it is difficult to assess the impacts of much larger scale adoption. Despite this, a few studies have attempted to explore the production and food security impacts of a widespread conversion to organic farming, the most recent of which, with a focus on the UK, was undertaken in 2009 by Jones and Crane.

The abstract summarises the results of this study:

  • An increase in the production of minor cereals such as oats and rye.
  • Major reductions in wheat and barley production.
  • Monogastric livestock (poultry & pigs) and milk production decreased considerably, whilst beef and sheep numbers increased.
  • Vegetable production was generally comparable to that under conventional farming.
  • Minimising the area of fertility building leys (eg clovers, lucerne, sainfoin) and/or improving rates of nitrogen fixation increased the food supply from organic agriculture at the national level.
  • The total food output, in terms of metabolizable (usable) energy, was 64% of that under conventional farming.

This would mean that substantial increases in food imports would be needed, with corresponding expansion of cultivated agricultural land overseas.

The continuing expansion and intensification of global agriculture presents a clear need to develop modes of production that can supply sufficient amounts of food for growing populations with more efficient use of resources.

Significant changes in diet and reductions in food waste would be required to offset the production impacts of a 100% conversion to organic farming. The populations of western countries should move towards more balanced diets to promote public health, with particular regard to increasing the share of fresh fruit and vegetables in the diet.

The significantly higher soil carbon sequestration rates observed in organically managed soils have led to suggestions that wider use of this production system could help to delay the onset of damaging climate change although others have noted that these benefits would be offset by the requirement to increase the area of land in agricultural production to meet food demand.

The benefits provided by organic agriculture in areas such as soil protection, on-farm employment, rural development, reduced input intensity, fossil-energy use, biodiversity and the maintenance or enhancement of ecosystem functions have been identified and quantified in various studies. They align with the dimensions of sustainability proposed by the United Nations following Rio + 20 through the Sustainable Development Goals and EU action plans such as the Biodiversity Strategy (European Commission, 2010) and Soil Thematic Strategy (European Commission, 2006).





A farmer reflects: “corporate leviathans threaten the rural economy . . . export expertise not food”


James Odgers’s letter to the Financial Times addresses the assumption that all economic growth must be good. He opens:

“Unbridled corporate power is at the heart of an ever-fiercer anger felt by many, and by millennials in particular, who view the growth and influence wielded by large corporations as malignant rather than benign. They place less emphasis on mere profit and more on the need to belong, to be part of a community”.

As a small-scale farmer in the south-west of England he is seeking to establish a sustainable model of farming post-Brexit that allies share farming with mutuality and stand in direct opposition to ever-larger farms selling to the multiple retailers.

He and others similarly placed have been amazed at the lack of political opposition to the proposed tie-up between Asda and Sainsbury’s as the competition authorities seem to be craven when faced with the power of these leviathans of commerce and ruefully reflects:

”The rural economy has been almost wholly destroyed by what is clearly an oligopoly and yet we are told that there is sufficient competition between these vast concerns to meet the needs of consumers”.

In another interview Odgers, from Stream Farm, Broomfield, points out that whilst prices in the supermarkets increased by 50% over a recent period of 7 years, the price at the farm gate rose only 12% and every new supermarket store that opens results in a net loss of 226 full, local livelihoods – mostly small-scale family businesses that have had to be closed – and the local communities have suffered accordingly.

His mission: to establish as many basic farming businesses as possible on the land and hand them on to those who want to farm, perhaps have tried and failed in the past, and to encourage them to earn a livelihood and by helping each other to produce the very best food.  So far 8 businesses have been set up: beef, lamb, chicken, pork, rainbow trout, apple juice, honey and spring water, still and sparkling.  He is keen to start on vines and perhaps crayfish. To read in more detail use this link.

Share farming is a microfinance model in which a farmer (often referred to as the owner) with land and fixed equipment enters into an agreement with another farmer (operator) who provides labour and machinery. The profit from the agreement is split between the two or an alternative compromise is reached. It gives each farmer the opportunity to run their own business and earn a livelihood from their share of gross income and the owner recovers, slowly, the costs of capital invested.

We could feed ourselves in this country and help the poor in other parts of the world if all farming were to be organic, if we took out the profiteering supermarkets, and farmers were paid a fair price for their produce.

  • It need be no more expensive for the consumer – our Dexter beef box is at least £60 cheaper than the equivalent cuts in Waitrose.
  • If we stopped wasting as much as we waste and demanding out-of-season and perfect-looking produce, there would be more food than we need.
  • If there were large numbers of small farmers helping each other as happens at Stream Farm, communities would be enhanced and the countryside would become vibrant and would require many more farmers.
  • And if we stopped pouring onto our land and into our animals chemicals that have no place to be there, we might all be a sight healthier too!

It is expertise that we should export from this tiny island of ours, rather than feeling we have an obligation to feed the world by unsustainable farming practices that are causing an ever-greater environmental deficit.





Brexit could boost British farming


As Kim Wilkie (below) says, government can never quite come up with the right legislation to protect against war, weather and pestilence, but then neither can an unregulated market. Agriculture cannot be treated as a purely commercial industry because too many other natural factors are at stake and the timescales are millennial.

He says that priority must be given to reviving the soils we have exhausted over the past 50 years. Treating arable land as an inert substrate for chemicals to boost crop production has proved to be a very short-term solution.

Drenching farmland in artificial nitrates not only kills the organic life of the soil, it is an inefficient way of getting nutrients into plants. As more and more nitrates are then needed to make the impoverished soil grow crops, the indigestible quantities are washed out into watercourses and pollute rivers and aquifers.

The fragile soil, deep ploughed and no longer bound together by organic matter (the life in the soil), also washes away into the sea. The Environment Agency estimates that across the UK, 2m tonnes of topsoil are eroded every year.

Combined with sensible farming, such as nitrogen-fixing crops and minimum tilling of the land, a return to mixed farming (rotating arable cultivation with cattle and sheep pasture grazing) does seem to offer a way of growing enough protein to feed the planet while at the same time restoring a healthy and stable environment.

Wilkie continues by pointing out that in the British Isles grass grows particularly well and livestock, grazing on pasture outside rather than on corn in sheds, is an efficient method of converting photosynthesising plants into protein. Co-operating with the land in this way continues a natural environment that has evolved with man since the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago.

The old argument is that we can only feed the world if we pursue intensive chemical agro-industry. New understanding of soil science suggests that we can actually only continue to produce enough food if we change our farming practices and reverse the depletion of our soil.

All farming needs to work harmoniously with natural systems. Attitudes to agriculture are buffeted by fears of starvation on the one hand and the desire for cheap food on the other. War, weather and pestilence haunt productivity.

Brexit has precipitated a complete review of subsidies. Housing demand is putting major pressure on the rural South East and particularly the greenbelt. Free Trade in chlorinated chicken looms ominously over agricultural integrity and food health. Where will it all end?

The first indications are it might go in some surprisingly good directions. The emphasis may shift from volume annual yields to long-term productivity. Farm support may be targeted towards methods that work with the health of soil and water. Chemical nitrates and pollutants may be taxed. Market gardens may reappear around our bulging urban edges.

*Kim Wilkie studied modern history at Oxford and landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, before setting up his landscape studio in London in 1989, combining design with running a small farm with rearing longhorn cattle.