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O2: Corporate organics & organic/ethical principles: the debate

Chair: Bruce Pearce (ORC)

This session debates what is sometimes perceived as a disconnect between large-scale organic production/marketing and the founding principles of organic/ethical production.

Session summary

Big isn’t necessarily bad’ is the message from the speakers in this session, in fact organic done on a large scale and sold through the multiple retailers enables more people to access organic food. The IFOAM Principles of Health, Ecology, Fairness & Care can be adhered to on a large scale. Andrew Burgess of Produce World said that large companies acting in a responsible way can magnify the benefits of the principles. Adrian Dolby of Barrington Park Estate runs a successful business farming just under 2,800 ha of the Cotswolds in a proper rotation adhering to the principles as well as the rules. Finn Cottle (Soil Association) asked without the large scale producers how are people who live in cities supposed to access organic food? The participants in the workshop worry that products on their way to organic, such as ‘pesticide free’ will ‘steal’ the market as consumers just don’t get what organic means.

After it was fairly convincingly proved that big can be good by our speakers; we saw slides of happy animals, happy workers and statistics that show without large scale production for multiple retailers the current level of 84% of British homes buying organic food could not be reached; comments from the floor were taken.

It was mentioned that low environmental impact lines of produce such as ‘pesticide free’ (when you read the fine print – pesticide residue free!) are closing the gap between conventional and organic produce available in supermarkets. It was worried that products that are not bottom line but not organic will steal the organic market, Finn Cottle urged us to think positively and view these products as stepping stones for consumers from basic to premium products. Another comment was that ‘people don’t understand organic because it is too complicated, they understand free range and pesticide free because they are simple phrases that say what they do on the tin.’ The question was posed – Can we come up with two magic words that sum up organic and can they breathe new life into organic marketing campaigns?

It was thought by another member of the workshop that the best way to get more organic produce sold was to ‘normalise it.’ There was much agreement for this statement – ‘organic produce should no longer have a premium because conventional is now so much more expensive than it was in the 60s – fertiliser is expensive.’ Finn Cottle reminded us that her presentation had showed that the sales of organic red meat are doing very well, this is due to the fact they are very similarly priced. It was also mentioned that the areas of organics that sell well are the ones that don’t market themselves as premium.

A final thought from the floor was that ‘more needs to be done’ to get organic food into schools and hospitals, it is usually dismissed immediately as ‘too expensive but this is not actually the case; organic food needs to lose its image as niche and expensive.’

Discussion points:

  • Big can be good if the principles of organic; from soil to staff
  • Large scale organic production means more people can access organic food
  • Organic food needs to be normalised and lose its image as niche and expensive if we don’t want to lose out to low environmental impact lines.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Andrew Burgess (Produce World): Large Business & IFOAM (PDF 793KB)
I will give some context to Produce World Ltd and its subsidiary RB Organic and then demonstrate that larger companies can behave in an ethical and high integrity manner, in line with the IFOAM principles of Health, Ecology, Fairness and Care. I will also attempt to demonstrate that when a large company behaves in this way the benefits can be magnified.

Finn Cottle (Soil Association): Organics in Action (PDF 427KB)
There is a perceived disconnect between large-scale organic production and marketing the founding principles of organic/ethical production. Although small and local can perhaps more easily meet the founding organic principles, there is plenty of positive evidence and successful examples of larger scale processors and retailers who fit comfortably within the IFOAM principles.

Adrian Dolby (Barrington Park Estate): A large farm perspective (PDF 3.4MB)
I will give some context to Barrington Park Estate to demonstrate that larger scale producers can operate ethically, addressing key principles within a tough trading environment.