Where next for the Soil Association?

So farewell then Patrick Holden. After 15 years as Director of the Soil Association Patrick is off to pastures new, specifically spending a month in the USA in order to set up a Sustainable Food Trust. In the New Year Helen Browning will replace him as Director of the Soil Association. Helen “has previous” with the Soil Association,  as they used to say on The Bill. She has been a licensee, Chair of Council and Food and Farming Director. So she is well known and respected within the Soil Association. Crucially she is also well known and respected outside the Organic sector, not least for the work she has done with the Curry Commission, the Food Ethics Council and the Meat and Livestock Commission. The short-list for the Director’s job was long with some very strong candidates. Patrick’s vision, determination and drive will make him a hard act to follow, but the faith that the Council of the Soil Association have placed in Helen suggests that she is the person to do just that.

The Soil Association under Helen’s leadership will have to take some very crunchy decisions. Income is down, both because of a pause in the growth of the organic sector and because NGOs are generally struggling to maintain their funding in these straightened times.  Since only 8% of consumers buy 55% of organic food one possibility would be for the Soil Association to hunker down and concentrate on servicing the needs of this group. This would essentially mean preaching to the converted rather than trying to bring new consumers into the fold. It would then make sense to hold the high ground on organic standards and focus on satisfying existing licensees.

I believe that, though tempting, this would be the wrong approach. The 92% of the population who are not heavy organic purchasers should not be ignored. Maybe the Soil Association will never be a membership-driven organisation like the RSPB or the National Trust.  However it can play a key part in driving the UK sustainability agenda, helping to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the Sustainable Development Commission. Which is not the same thing as saying that the Soil Association should re-position itself as an environmental NGO. Patrick wanted the Soil Association to be seen as operating in the same area as Greenpeace or Friends of The Earth through it’s championing of the peak-oil and Transition Town movements. I disagreed with him then and I disagree with him now. The Soil Association’s strength lies in its expertise with sustainable food and farming. The success of the Food4Life campaign suggests that the Soil Association can most successfully achieve its aims by collaborating with other like-minded organisations. I wish Helen and her team good luck with the mission.