Environmental Audit CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by The Soil Association

Introduction

1. 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 farmer members. The Soil Association also owns an accredited organic certification company.

Summary

2. The Soil Association welcomes the fact that the Environmental Audit Committee has launched this inquiry into the environmental and social consequences of food in the UK. Food and farming is a vital issue which underpins our food security, environment and our health.

The approaching “perfect storm” of climate change, resource depletion, food insecurity and population growth in addition to continuing environmental degradation and diet-related ill health, is forcing us to re-consider how we produce and consume food.

Agro-ecological farming systems, such as organic, combined with a shift towards healthier, more plant-based diets, offer solutions to many of these critical environmental, social and economic challenges facing our current food and farming system.

Organic agriculture has widely recognised biodiversity and other environmental benefits. It can make a significant contribution to mitigating climate change impact and can help to achieve improved food security.

New and practical approaches such as the Food for Life Partnership, and Community Supported Agriculture are reaching young people and their families in thousands of communities across England, re-capturing their interest in food and how it is produced and nudging them towards healthier diets. Independent evaluation of the Food for Life Partnership has demonstrated significant public health gains, but future funding to secure these gains beyond 2011 is still uncertain.

The Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark offers a vehicle for local and national Government to champion continuous improvement in food served in schools, hospitals, nurseries and workplaces not covered by the Government Buying Standards. Its stepping stone approach rewards increasing use of seasonal, local, organic ingredients, sustainable fish and high-welfare meat and provision of healthier menus based around fresh whole foods. Over 270,000 public sector meals a day are already accredited.

Environmental Impacts

3. The cheap price of food from conventional intensive and industrialised farming systems fails to reflect the true value of our natural resources and the critical role they play in our food production systems. The negative externalities associated with conventional agriculture in the UK has been estimated at £1.51 billion a year; this includes water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity as well as the adverse effects of human health. Such impacts subsequently affect our ability to ensure our own food security.

4. Organic food better reflects the true value of the natural resources on which our agricultural systems depend. By working with natural systems and making use of natural biological and ecological processes, organic farming systems can avoid many of the negative environmental impacts associated with intensive farming systems.

5. In recent months there have been renewed calls for agriculture to become ever more intensive, in order to produce higher yields, on smaller amounts of land, and to leave plots of land available for wildlife. Organic agriculture proves that it is possible to be productive in both food and biodiversity on the same land.

6. Over the last 50 years in the UK, there has been a steep decline in wildlife in the countryside. Research, much of it Government funded, has identified that agricultural intensification led to these declines. Organic agricultural systems however, have the ability to reverse this trend. There is now scientific evidence to show the biodiversity and wider environmental benefits of organic farming systems compared to conventional. In 2005, a 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.

Climate Change and Agricultural Inputs

7. The current dominant system of intensive, monoculture agriculture has only been made possible through the use of high levels of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, inputs which will not be sustainable into the future given the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from their manufacture and use, as well as predictions of future resource shortages, as exemplified by peak oil and peak phosphate.

8. A significant contribution to the potential of organic farming systems to mitigate climate change comes from the carbon sequestration in soils. Several field studies have shown the positive effect of organic farming practice on soil carbon pools and on the basis of evidence so far available, a recent review of 39 comparative studies of soil carbon levels found that organic arable farming practices produce 28% higher soil carbon concentrations than non-organic farming in Northern Europe, and 20% for all countries studied.

9. Current intensive livestock systems in Europe are reliant on imported soy for animal feed which is helping to drive the destruction of South American rainforests. In the Amazon in the last decade, soybean cultivation, as well as intensive cattle grazing, has been the dominant drivers of land clearing. Between 1990 and 2006 the area used for soybean cultivation quadrupled. This process is having a negative impact on biodiversity, but also releasing GHGs and further contributing to climate change. A shift away from such systems, to grass-based systems, avoids this.

Land Use

10. The question of whether organic farming can feed the world is one which is often posed. In developing countries show evidence exists that “organic agricultural systems achieve equal or even higher yields, as compared to the current conventional practices”. An analysis of 286 projects covering 37 million hectares in 57 countries found that when sustainable agricultural practices covering a variety of systems and crops were adopted, average crop yields increased by 79%. A survey from the United Nations of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near organic practices had been used. It also found that organic farming increased access to food through the production and selling of food surpluses at local markets which meant that farmers had higher incomes and increased purchasing power.

11. The University of Reading carried out a study into what food could be produced if all of England and Wales was farmed organically. They concluded that beef production could go up 68% and lamb production up 55%. The output of fruit and vegetables would stay about the same whilst chicken, egg and pork production would fall to roughly a quarter of current levels because of an end to intensive farming systems, which organic standards do not permit. Dairy production would fall by around 30-40%. The amount of wheat and barley produced would drop by around 30%. However, because we would be feeding far less grain to animals—more than half of the world’s crops are currently used to feed animals—we could have as much wheat and barley for human consumption under an organic system.

Healthy and Sustainable Food for All

12. Our current food system is not sustainable, as it delivers a diet high in processed food, meat and diary products to the developed world, and increasingly to the developing world. With concern over the nutrition transition in poorer countries and recognition of the necessity for a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products due to the climate impact of livestock products, and the negative effects on ill health, radical changes in both how we farm and what we eat are now needed.

13. The implication of the research from Reading University is that if organic farming was carried out across the country, the UK could produce sufficient yields to feed the UK population, but that our diet would need to change significantly, towards one that is healthier and more sustainable. This would include; an overall cut in dairy consumption, with dairy products to be sourced from grass-fed cows from extensive farming systems; more cereals and root crops and more seasonal fruit and vegetables; and less meat overall, but more grass-fed beef and lamb.

Practical Examples

14. These examples highlight how a step by step approach to ensuring that local, fresh and organic food can be provided and how local communities can be engaged in this process.

The Food for Life Partnership

15. The Food for Life Partnership is a coalition of charities that supports schools and local authorities; pupils, families and communities; school teachers and catering staff and British farmers.

16. The network of Food for Life Partnership schools and communities across England are committed to transforming food culture. The initiative is funded by the Big Lottery Fund and led by the Soil Association, bringing together the practical expertise of the Focus on Food Campaign, Garden Organic and the Health Education Trust. It is revolutionising schools meals, reconnecting young people with farms and inspiring families to cook and grow food.

17. Some examples of outputs from the initiative include:

Over 3,300 schools working towards the FFLP Bronze award in partnership with their caterer;

182 Flagship schools and communities across England passing on the learning to other schools about the benefits of a whole school approach to food;

over 107,000 children, parents and school staff have been cooking, growing and visiting farms thanks to the Food for Life Partnership; and

over 250,000 children eating Food for Life accredited meals every day across England. 

18. Independent evaluation by the University of the West of England and Cardiff University has found that 43% parents have changed their food purchasing and 43% say their families are eating more vegetables as a direct result of the Food for Life Partnership.

19. Lottery funding for the Food for Life Partnership ends in December 2011. The transition to a stronger local public health service from 2013 may offer opportunities for local commissioning of evidence-based interventions such as the Food for Life Partnership. However, there is a very real risk that the programme and the support it offers to over 3300 schools will disappear without transition funding for 2012.

The Food for Life Catering Mark

20. The Soil Association operates a national kitemark scheme for sustainable catering, the Food for Life Catering Mark, which was developed in 2008 with support from the South West Director of Public Health, and was launched by HRH the Prince of Wales to caterers in the private and public sectors early in 2009

21. The Food for Life Catering Mark gives caterers public recognition for making step-by-step progress towards healthier and more sustainable menus. Three tiers, from Bronze to Gold, reward caterers for removing hydrogenated fats, additives and highly processed food and demonstrating increasing use of high welfare meat, sustainable fish and locally sourced and organic ingredients.

22. This voluntary scheme has been widely taken up by schools, nurseries, hospitals, sports clubs, venues and restaurants. It already certifies over 230,000 meals a day in the public sector, including meals served by 11 local authorities and 13 contract caterers in the schools’ sector. Over a third of London’s boroughs are now serving school meals certified to Food for Life Bronze standards or higher.

23. Importantly, the Food for Life Catering Mark acts as a trusted independent verification of standards, and has wide public recognition thanks to the profile of Food for Life in over 3,000 schools across England.

24. The Food for Life Catering Mark offers a vehicle that local and national government can and should champion to show leadership in public sector food beyond central Government departments covered by the Buying Standards.

Community Supported Agriculture

25. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a partnership between farmers and the local community providing mutual benefits and reconnecting people to the land where their food is grown.

26. Benefits to the local communities:

consumers benefit from receiving fresh food from a known source;

a local economy enhanced by higher employment, more local processing, local consumption and a re-circulation of money through “local spend”;

educating people about varieties of food, its production methods and costs; and

having an influence over the local landscape and encouraging more sustainable farming.

27. Benefits to farmers:

a higher and fairer return for their products by selling direct to the public;

increased involvement in the local community; the opportunity to respond directly to consumers’ needs; and

receive help with labour and planning initiatives for the future.

Conclusion

28. We hope that the Committee will consider the evidence presented here as an accurate outline of the current situation in food and farming. We hope you will agree that agro-ecological approaches such as organic farming have much to offer in terms of helping to solve a number of problems which our food and farming system currently faces.

29. The Soil Association is leading practical action on a significant scale via the Food for Life Partnership, Food for Life Catering Mark and Community Supported Agriculture initiatives to increase demand for sustainable food and nudge people towards more sustainable and healthy diets. Independent evaluation of the Food for Life Partnership programme has demonstrated significant public health gains, but future funding to secure these gains beyond December 2011 is uncertain.

30. We would be pleased to add further detail to these points via oral evidence to the Committee at your convenience.

25 March 2011

Prepared 10th May 2012