Guardian blog


Actually, it’s not. I wrote it yesterday as I was dying to relieve myself of this knot of ideological disgruntlement. I’d submitted it to the Guardian as a pitch on Wednesday, but because it’s outside my usual Guardian-blog comfort zones of TV, Media, Music and Film, I didn’t know who to send it to, and it had to go round the houses. Anyway, I’ve just heard back from them, and they don’t want to publish it*, so I’m going to publish it here. Sorry it’s not about TV, media, music and film.


Watching the latest animal welfare programme by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on TV this week, I felt a familiar swell of pride when he compared government and EU standards for chickens intensively raised as meat to those of organic watchdog the Soil Association. (The charity recommends a flock size of 500, while even organic chickens reared to EU specifications can come in flocks of almost 10,000.) Ah yes, I thought, three cheers for the Soil Association: out there fighting for truth and justice, pushing back the barriers of what constitutes sustainability and keeping all other organic certifiers on their toes. That’s why I have been an evangelistic supporter of the Association’s tireless work for over a decade.

As a member, I recall being consulted when the charity actually considered changing its name for fear that its association with soil might muddy the waters of its consumer-aimed message. I voted to keep the old name, and thankfully they did. The Soil Association’s place in modern life – as a real stamp of quality and assurance whether spied on the side of a jar of organic coffee or a tube of face moisturiser – is now totally ingrained. Like so many aims of the organic movement previously viewed as crank extremism, the Soil Association has gone overground.

Unfortunately, it’s gone a little too far overground. Into the air, in fact, and I for one feel betrayed. After two lengthy consultations, it seems for all the world to have caved in to pressure from big business to allow air-freighted produce to display the organic label. Although they deny that this is the reason, it remains a far more contentious issue than changing the name, and, for me, a deal-breaker.

The debate began in earnest last year, having been bubbling since 2007, when the Guardian asked the question: should we stop flying in organic food? The Soil Association proposed – rightly, in my opinion – to reclassify organic fruit and veg that arrived here by plane. Although less than 1% of imported food is air freighted, it contributes 11% of the carbon emissions from UK food distribution. I understand the counter argument – that many organic farmers in the developing world rely on export to faraway places like the UK for their livelihoods – but my view, which I believed I shared with the Soil Association, is that the future of the planet is local.

As I write, the Soil Association website makes little fanfare of its egregious and lily-livered decision to allow air-freighted food to continue to carry the organic label. You have to dig to find the information, but there it is, in the Standards section**, rehearsing the line about improving rural communities in Africa and offering this flimsy get-out: “Soil Association organic standards are constantly under development, reacting to new research, technical innovation and public expectation.”

For “public expectation” read “expectation on behalf of the public.” I am a member of the public; I expect organic standards to become more not less stringent. Most produce on our shelves is non-organic, it’s not as if people don’t have a choice, especially in these belt-tightening times. But those who do choose to shop ethically surely do not wish their principles to be sold down the river for fear of upsetting Sainsbury’s and Tesco. The supermarkets pay lip service to farmers in Africa, but all they really care about is the bottom line. (They don’t even care about British farmers.) Why should we expect otherwise from shareholder-led multinational corporations?

What we do expect is the leading organic certification body to stick to its principles. Perhaps it should change its name now, to the Spoiled Association. Ha ha.

*Actually, it was passed to the Observer too, but they already have a piece about it, so it’s been rejected twice!

** Ironically, I can’t find it today, but it was there yesterday. Why isn’t it on the front page? And why has it only been reported in the Times and Mail?


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