Resignation as trustees of the Soil Association
On November 18th we – Joanna Blythman, Lynda Brown, Pat Thomas and Andrew Whitley – resigned as trustees of the Soil Association. We expect fellow members of the Soil Association will wonder why. In a democratic organisation they certainly have a right to be told without delay.
Below is an edited version of our resignation letter and a shortened summary of the concerns which led to our collective action, following a vote by a majority of the Soil Association Council not to hold an emergency meeting to address the issues.
A longer account of our concerns is available, should Soil Association members or the wider community wish to read it.
We think that the organic approach to food and farming is ecologically coherent, humane, scientifically responsible and potent and we remain committed supporters of the organisation’s founding purposes. We hope that our action stimulates thought about how the Soil Association might campaign most effectively for the adoption of organic ideas in order to build a healthy society from the ground up.
Edited resignation letter
Dear Dennis [Dennis Overton, Chair of SA Council]
We are writing to tender our resignations as Trustees of the Soil Association with immediate effect.
Since joining Council we have tried to fulfil our obligation as trustees to help guide the organisation in achieving its aims and purposes. Our contributions have been based on a clear commitment to the organic cause and on our long-standing and varied track record in food policy, campaigning, journalism and production. We have brought to Council not only perspective but engagement. We have reported on how others see the Association and have presented several well thought-through proposals for improvements in practice.
Despite our strenuous attempts to raise our latest concerns in a way that was discreet and proper, the majority response has been to shoot the messenger rather than face the awkward message. Meanwhile, the questionable presence on Management Committee (with an attendant reputational risk) of a non-organic farmer and a doctor who publicly attacks an important tool of organic animal husbandry (homoeopathy) seems not to concern a Council that purports to be committed to good governance.
We fear for the good name and relevance of an organisation that we have supported for many years. We have done our best to alert fellow trustees to the dangers implicit in the way that the current strategy is being implemented. It is clear that ours is a minority view and we can no longer collude in a bogus consensus. Accordingly we are resigning. We will continue to devote our energies to challenging corporate control of the food system.
Shortened summary of trustee concerns about the Soil Association
Implementation of the Soil Association strategy [Road to 2020] and its effect on the Soil Association profile
We believe that the implementation of this strategy is a major factor in the demise of organic awareness, and the general confusion around what the Soil Association is, what it stands for, and what it does. In particular we would note the following:
1. Demise of organic awareness
- The avoidance, wherever possible, of the ‘O’ word in preference to ‘nature–friendly’ and ‘planet-friendly’ substitutes.
- A reluctance to use the ‘O’ word in relation to the Soil Association and its activities.
- The emphasis on ‘starting where people are’ which leads to confusing messages and uncomfortable compromises. An example here is the use of a long-standing organic slogan ‘Food you can trust’ to promote the Food For Life Catering Mark when its standards depart in important respects from Soil Association organic standards.
- The widespread confusion resulting from compromised positions.
- The tendency to ‘infantilise' the organic message in major campaigns.
- The policy of ‘pick and mix’ organics, which undermines informed understanding of organic principles.
2. Subordination and dilution of the organic message to a healthy eating message
- Food For Life and the Catering Mark messaging is given prominence and is becoming the preferred ‘voice’ of the Soil Association.
- The shift in focus to position the Soil Association as a public health delivery organization rather than the UK’s main organic food and farming organisation.
3. The Soil Association’s public profile
- A PR void at senior management level, and loss of an authoritative voice.
- The Soil Association is no longer the ‘go-to’ place for media on food and farming matters.
- The Soil Association lacks political clout on national farming matters.
4. A dull and uninspiring image
- The evident lack of appeal to younger consumers, for example, as highlighted in a recent survey conducted by MMR Research Worldwide.
- A safe, cautious, controversy-averse image, pre-occupied with being all things to all men and with an over -arching ‘soft sell’.
- The substitution of vague promises for meaningful inspirational targets.
- The lack of ‘fire in the belly’ campaigns and conviction in its own beliefs.
- The policy – as seen in the Soil Association’s daily News Digest – of attaching itself to others’ coat tails to ‘walk the talk’.
5. The inward looking and parochial nature of the Soil Association
- Too focused on its own achievements
- A lack of engagement with the wider organic world
- Inadequate promotion of the success of the organic movement globally to help build general consumer/ farming confidence.
6. Membership issues
- Membership of the Soil Association continues to decline.
- Members are undervalued in comparison to external ‘stakeholders’.
- The evolution of Living Earth into a lightweight lifestyle magazine instead of an intelligent publication that inspires and informs.
- An emerging agenda to change the Soil Association from a campaigning membership organisation into a ‘corporate’ entity.
7. Inadequate support and allegiance to organic farmers and growers
- .Licensee numbers have stagnated, yet there seems to be no pro-active strategy, in either the farming or the consumer arena, to capitalize on the upturn of organic sales and to champion overtly organic food.