Environment, Food and Rural Affairs CommitteeFurther written evidence submitted by the Soil Association

This response is made on behalf of the Soil Association and produced by its policy department. The Soil Association is the main organisation for organic food and farming in the UK, and is a membership charity with over 27,000 members including approximately 4,000 producer members. The Soil Association also owns an accredited organic certification company.

The committee is seeking evidence from interested parties and invites submissions on the following areas:

What actions are required across Government Departments, from local government and by civil society to deliver the White Paper’s proposals to grow a green economy and reconnect people with nature?

What resources will be needed to fully deliver the White Paper’s ambitions and how can these best be provided? How might the value of “services” provided by ecosystems to beneficiaries be translated into spending that will enhance the natural environment?

1. We welcome the focus on “Getting the best value from agricultural land” (Chapter 2, 2.45, page 23) and the recognition of the role for farmers and land managers in achieving society’s ambitions for water, wildlife, healthy soil and food production and the management of landscapes. We welcome the recognition that farming needs to be supported in building capacity for environmentally sustainable production both in the UK and globally.

2. We believe that organic farming can play a key role in delivering these numerous public goods and ecosystem services (as mentioned above—water and soil protection, biodiversity enhancement, and landscape management), along with food production, but also climate change mitigation and adaptation. As a system, organic farming is often able to deliver the objectives much more efficiently than an approach which relies on a myriad of policy interventions which attempt achieve each objective separately. The compliance costs (inspection and certification) are already met by organic farmers and growers. The delivery of multiple public goods is an inescapable output of every organic farm business.

3. There is now significant amount of scientific evidence of the ecosystem services that organic farming delivers. With regard to the protection of biodiversity, there are three important studies:

In 2005, a literature review of 66 published studies that compared organic and non-organic farming systems, concluded that on average wildlife is 50% more abundant on organic farms and there are 30% more species, than on non-organic farms.1

Another 2005 scientific literature review by English Nature and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) found evidence of the biodiversity benefits of organic farming systems (compared to non-organic systems) for a wide range of wildlife including birds, mammals, spiders, earthworms, beetles and plants.2

An extensive survey by the British Trust of Ornithology in 2005 of lowland farms containing cereal crops in England, found that organic fields held more plant species and a greater abundance of weeds than non-organic farms. It found 5–48% more spiders in pre-harvest crops, 16–62% more birds in the first winter, and 6–75% more bats.3

4. We do not think enough emphasis has been placed in the White Paper on mitigating climate change, (the emphasis appears to be on adaptation—Chapter 1, section 1.15, page 10) and particularly the positive role that the agriculture sector can play in this. A significant contribution to the potential of organic farming systems to mitigate climate change comes from carbon sequestration in soils. Several field studies have proved the positive effect of organic farming practice on soil carbon pools.4 A recent review by the Soil Association of 39 comparative studies of soil carbon levels found, on the basis of evidence so far available, that organic arable farming practices produce 28% higher soil carbon levels than non-organic farming in Northern Europe, and 20% for all countries studied.5 In addition, manufactured nitrogen fertilisers that contribute GHG emissions in their manufacture and use, are not used in organic systems, where legumes and cover crops extract plant-available nitrogen unused by the preceding crops and keep it in the system.6

5. Support for organic farming is therefore essential in helping to deliver the White Paper’s ambitions in this regard.

6. With regard to the reform of the CAP in this context (Chapter 5, section 5.20, page 63 and Chapter 2, section 2.52 page 25) the Soil Association is keen that as all of Pillar 1 of the CAP is not going to be moved to Pillar 2, then payments made under Pillar 1 should deliver environmental outcomes. This will ensure that public goods are supported by all CAP payments. The EU Group of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), of which the Soil Association is a part, agrees that organic farming should be included in Pillar 1, as part of public goods/agri-environment delivery measures with 100% EU funding. Alongside this, Pillar 2 should continue to include organic options that are applied consistently throughout the EU as part of all the public goods/agri-environment measures.

7. We disagree with the statement that one of the major challenges is to increase food production in the UK (Chapter 2, 2.46, page 23). We believe that the assumptions behind this should be challenged, drawing on the available evidence. We believe that a key priority for addressing the problems of feeding a growing world population, and the environmental destruction and greenhouse gas emissions caused by our current food and farming system is a rebalancing of in diets in the Global North, as suggested in the UK by the Government’s Climate Change Committee. There are widespread concerns about the health impacts that the structural changes in diet have already had in the Global North, and that are increasingly occurring in the Global South. Such diets are a leading cause of non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular disease, some cancers and Type 2 diabetes.7 An environmentally sustainable farming system in the UK would deliver a healthy diet.

8. We do not think that the voluntary approaches mentioned in section 2.48 (Chapter 2, page 24), the industry-led Campaign for the Farmed Environment and the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan will deliver the changes in agriculture that are needed. The former has not succeeded so far, and in the case of the latter, we note the Climate Change Committee’s comment that voluntary approached have not worked in any other sector of the UK economy. Farming may be left having to make massive cuts in GHG emissions in later years due to a failure to act decisively now. In addition, the voluntary approach runs the risk of not making the most of the crucial role that soil carbon sequestration can play in reducing GHG emissions from agriculture.

What further research and/or evidence is required to develop practical programmes sufficiently detailed to deliver the White Paper’s ambition to fully embed the value of nature into policy delivery?

9. We welcome the commitment to undertake a significant research programme to explore how soil degradation can affect the soil’s ability to support vital ecosystem services (Chapter 3, 2.60, page 28). Of course, we hope that research into the role that organic farming systems can play with regard to this will form a key part of this programme.

Does the White Paper set out an accurate assessment of the barriers to public engagement with the natural environment and make the most effective proposals for re-engagement?

10. With regard to the “reconnecting people and nature” theme (Chapter 4), we support commitments to improving adult and children’s access to the outdoors, particularly opportunities for growing their own food.

11. With regard to effective proposals for re-engagement, a project with demonstrated success in reconnecting people with the natural environment, countryside and food production, is the Soil Association’s Community Supported Agriculture scheme. Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a growing movement that offers communities the opportunity for a stronger, closer and more meaningful relationship with the production of their food; enterprises generally trade with a core of loyal members and largely take payment in advance, providing secure income and a healthy cash flow for farmers and growers.

12. The Soil Association has been supporting the development of CSA in the UK for over 12 years, most recently through a four year Big Lottery funded partnership project called Making Local Food Work. As part of this work the Soil Association funded an evaluation of the impact of CSA which found that over 80 CSA enterprises are now providing multiple benefits to their thousands of members and over 120 new schemes are in development.

13. The study revealed that CSA has a significant effect on their members’ behaviour, health, skills and well-being with 70% saying that their overall quality of life has improved. CSA initiatives raise awareness of food and sustainability issues, create volunteering, employment and educational opportunities on the land, and benefit surrounding wildlife through improved land management practices. Over half of the trading CSA enterprises have made the land they are on more accessible to the public and many CSA members with children stress the importance of their involvement in developing their children’s understanding and experience of food production and sustainability issues. Many members state that a key appealing feature of their initiative is that it provides a more environmentally friendly alternative to the mainstream food system and that their closer relationship with how their food is produced has changed their cooking and eating habits for the better.

14. The key findings from the study:

56% have increased the amount of land managed according to organic principles; 55% have planted more hedges and trees; 61% have introduced new wildlife areas.

77% have increased diversity of production on their land.

53% have made land more accessible to the public.

29% consider that their approach has had a positive effect on the way their neighbours manage their land, including encouraging membership of stewardship schemes.

70% of members say that their cooking and eating habits have changed, primarily through using more local, seasonal and healthy food; 66% say that their shopping habits have changed, principally through a shift to more local shopping in addition to buying through the enterprise.

Most enterprises provide some formal or informal training (71%), and a still greater proportion (77%) count education or training more broadly amongst the products and services they provide. 36% of CSA members feel that their skills have increased through their involvement.

The vast majority of enterprises provide volunteering opportunities—averaging 44 volunteers per enterprise and over 100 in several cases.

26 September 2011

1 Bengtesson J, Anhstrom J, Weilbull A (2005) The effects of organic agriculture on biodiversity and abundance: a meta-analysis, Journal of Applied Ecology, 42: 261-269.

2 Hole D G, Perkins A J, Wilson J D, Alexander I H, Grice P V and Evans A D (2005) Does organic farming benefit biodiversity? Biological Conservation 122, 113-130.

3 Fuller R J, Norton L R, Feber R E, Johnson P J, Chamberlain D E, Joys A C, Mathews F, Stuart R C, Townsend M C, Manley M J, Wolfe M S, Macdonald D W and Firbank L G (2005) Benefits of organic farming to biodiversity vary among taxa, Biological Letters, Published online.

4 Fliessbach A., Oberholzer, H.R. Gunst L., and Mader, P. (2007) Soil Organic matter and biological soil quality indicators after 21 years of organic and conventional farming, Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 118:273-284; Kustermann, B., Kainz, M., and Hulsbergen, K. J. (2008) Modelling carbon cycles and estimation of greenhouse gas emissions from organic and conventional farming systems. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 23:38-52; Pimental D., Hepperly P., Hanson, J., Douds D., and Seidel, R. (2005) Environmental, energetic and economic comparison of organic and conventional farming systems. Bioscience, 55: 573-582.

5 Azeez, G. (2009) Soil Carbon and organic farming. A review of the evidence of agriculture’s potential to combat climate change. (Available at http://www.soilassociation.org/Whyorganic/Climatefriendlyfoodandfarming/Soilcarbon/tabid/574/Default.aspx).

6 Scialabbe, N., E-H and Muller-Lindenlauf, M. (2010) Organic agriculture and climate change, Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 25 (2) 158-169.

7 Soil Association (2010) Telling Porkies: The big fat lie about doubling food production, available at

Prepared 16th July 2012