In this month’s Sustainability Watch, Dr Tom MacMillan, formerly director of the Food Ethics Council and now director of innovation at the Soil Association, speaks with Ben Cooper about the Soil Association’s new strategy and the UK government’s Green Food Project.

Much has been written about the woes of the UK organic sector. While organic sales have held up well in some countries and other areas of the ethical foods market have continued to grow, organic sales in the UK have struggled during the downturn.

Having peaked at over GBP2bn (US$3.1bn) in 2008, organic sales in the UK have been falling ever since, according to the Organic Market Report 2012, published by UK organic body the Soil Association in March.

While the rate of decline slowed in 2011, with sales falling by 3.7% to GBP1.67bn, good news was in short supply. Kantar Worldpanel data for the multiple retail sector showed that organic dairy fell by 9%, fruits and vegetables by 5%, beverages by 14%, meat by 6% and bread by 14% in 2011, with only poultry and baby food bucking the downward trend, rising by 6% and 7% respectively.

One might say, if ever a sector was in need of some new thinking, it is now. In that regard, the Soil Association cannot at least be accused of sitting on its hands.

Last September, the organisation launched a new strategy which places a strong emphasis on innovation and also seeks to find the optimum balance between setting standards for organic farmers and improving the sustainability of UK farming, food and land use generally by reaching out to the non-organic farming sector.

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“We’re still very strongly committed to making sure we’ve got rigorous organic standards that people can trust and that are helpful to farmers in helping them farm better, but where we’re broadening out our approach is making the work we’re doing much more accessible to non-organic farmers,” says Dr Tom MacMillan, the former director of the Food Ethics Council who joined the Soil Association as director of innovation just as the new strategy was launched.

For MacMillan, the emphasis the strategy places on information-sharing between the organic and non-organic sectors is critical. “The ideal is that we encourage organic and non-organic farmers to share their expertise and experience directly rather than thinking that as an organisation we’ve got all the answers. It’s much more that facilitating role and helping get the flows of ideas and good practice operating smoothly.”

Farmer-led experimentation is also critical, MacMillan believes. He cites the Duchy Originals Future Farming programme, launched in April, as an important project in the context of the new strategy.

Funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation and delivered by the Soil Association in partnership with Duchy Originals from Waitrose and the Organic Research Centre (ORC), the programme aims to support innovation in sustainable agriculture and help British farmers to “identify and adopt practices that improve their productivity in an environmentally responsible way”.

At the heart of the programme are “field labs”, farmer-led learning events open to both organic and non-organic farmers which will appraise innovative, agroecological approaches, share best practice and improve problem-solving skills. The field labs will be located at farms where new practices are being trialled, with the same group of farmers meeting several times through the production season to monitor progress and discuss alternative approaches. The results will feed into a review process led by the ORC to identify research priorities.

The Soil Association’s more inclusive approach arguably positions it as a potentially important participant in the Green Food Project, the government-led multi-stakeholder programme aimed at fostering a more sustainable food supply.

However, while the Green Food Project may potentially offer a forum for the organic sector to engage with other stakeholders, MacMillan sounds two notes of caution.

In the first place, he suggests the overall premise of the Green Food Project to reconcile the dual objectives of producing more food and safeguarding the environment itself has been challenged by some of the initial findings. “The answer that’s come back from some of the groups is that it isn’t always that easy to reconcile those things and so it challenges the premise.”

In addition, while the Green Food Project embodies the idea of stakeholder engagement in finding solutions, MacMillan believes government must play more than just an enabling role. Simply “batting” the problem back to civil society and industry is not sufficient. “Wherever there’s an assumption that enabling business means government doing less, as in stepping back, that’s a false premise I think.”

Nowhere is this more critical than in sustainable consumption. Interestingly, it was not envisaged at the outset that the Green Food Project would look specifically at issues around sustainable consumption. Rather it was intended to focus primarily on production. However, it became clear during the process that all stakeholders agreed sustainable consumption should be an intrinsic element and the project has been modified accordingly.

While MacMillan suggests this is “rather an odd journey” to have had to make, he says “it’s good to see more recognition of consumption issues in the project report than in the initial framing of the project”.

However, he believes the emphasis now being placed on sustainable consumption increases the need for government action still further, notably in retailing. “In the food retail sector it is very hard to see where you can get much movement without some sort of signal from government that it recognises the value of promoting sustainable consumption.”

With retailers operating in a highly competitive environment, it is for government to use the “levers” at its disposal to address a “public-interest” issue. “The government has some levers that they are not using at the moment. There are lots of these different things government could do , none of which are magic bullets or anything like that, but at the moment it does none of them. And that’s the frustration.”
Moreover, MacMillan believes this need not be a polarising issue between stakeholder groups, suggesting there have been some “important signals” from industry in recent years supporting government intervention.

“Understandably businesses have quite mixed feelings about regulation and about governments getting involved but I would say their number one concern is that this should be a level playing-field. The focus of the debate at the moment in the food sector is between government supporting a fairly minimum role for the state and most other players, including from within industry, supporting actually a more active leadership role for the state.”

Above all, MacMillan suggests the Green Food Project needs to be looking forward to finding and implementing new solutions, particularly as there is some fatigue among some stakeholders who have seen a number of similar collaborative initiatives come to nothing. 

“By and large we think the findings of the Green Food Project are pretty helpful,” he says. “They’re useful, perhaps more useful than we thought it was going to be, and so we were certainly encouraged by it.” However, he suggests the Green Food Project so far essentially represents “a conversation about what can be done” and “an exploration” of the issues.

The measure of its effectiveness, MacMillan says, will be what happens next. “The report should be primarily about where more is needed. I don’t think it’s primary function is a celebration of what’s already going on.” In that sense, the Soil Association with its innovation-led strategy might be said to be leading by example.