There was lots of straight talking — and a few raised eyebrows — at last month’s Annual Soil Association Conference. Michael Wale reports here for for Natural Products.
At a time when the latest figures from America show organic farming increasing by 20% a year, the Soil Association’s annual conference in Birmingham heard that eight organic growers were leaving the sector in the UK over the same period.
This was revealed by Liberal democrat Food and Farming spokesman Roger Williams MP for Brecon and Radnorshire . The Conference met under the banner The Future of Food. Earlier the Soil Association’s Director Patrick Holden warned: “We are on the edge of a global food crisis.” And although Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, urged the Soil Association to work together with others in innovative science and technology ‘ without just discussing GM’ he added that ‘ the world will turn to you in the coming years as they ask ‘how will we do this without oil’. You have the knowledge.”
The Conservative’s shadow Minister of Agriculture Jim Paice argued that each section of farming should listen to the other. He also argued for the Government to place the £2 billion a year it spends on food for public procurement locally, He added that the Conservatives had asked Parliamentary candidate Zac Goldsmith to look into this.
The most hilarious session of the conference came under the heading of the Farmers. Holden and Rebecca Hosking represented the organic corner and the NFU’s president Peter Kendall and Oliver Walston , representing the conventional sector.
Kendall pointed out that 7% of his members were organic farmers, and ‘the guy who is challenging me for my job is one of our vice presidents who is organic’.Over GM he urged the Conference not to ‘ I’m not sure the consumer will swallow all GM . But I do beg of you not to use an argument of scare. MMR was a scare debate”.
Holden argued that in the future there will be no more nitrogen fertilizer. Walston said :” It’s not a real question. It’s like asking when you are going to stop beating your wife”.
GM was raised again and Kendall admitted: “I do worry about power getting into a few hands. I think there is an issue of market power of seeds in a very few hands”.
When Walston, a self confessed grain baron, pointed out that he had just produced 40 tons of sugar beet an acre compared with the 7 tons his father used to get, Holden called him a ‘fossil fuel junky. Twenty years Oliver employed 20 people, now he only employs two.7