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Peter Melchett farms organically at Courtyard Farm in Norfolk. Photo: Peter Melchett.
Peter Melchett farms organically at Courtyard Farm in Norfolk. Photo: Peter Melchett.
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Organic inspections, organic growth

Peter Melchett

24th May 2014

Organic farming has changed, but for the better, writes Soil Association head of policy and Norfolk organic farmer Peter Melchett. As never before, organic inspections are central to the delivery of environmental and animal care, and food you really can trust.

The increased care and professionalism with which organic inspections are carried out, is, I think, welcome, and certainly necessary in the face of higher public expectation and increased, often hostile scrutiny.

I've been an organic farmer for 14 years, not as long as some of my colleagues, but this does mean I have had 16 inspections by the Soil Association since we started our two years of conversion in 1998.

Another long-term organic farmer, indeed someone who has been involved for much longer than me, Julian Rose, claims that organic inspections have become "an exercise in bureaucratic tedium".

This is a million miles away from my own experience. It is true that inspection reports have been computerised, but in my experience that has speeded up the form-filling, not added to it.

And, as Julian says, we have to get the paperwork ready in advance, like our cropping plans for each field. But that's not something that should be too much of a bureaucratic imposition for most farmers.

Taxing, yes, and thorough too

I have always found our inspections taxing - we have had several Soil Association inspectors over the years, all of them have been friendly, professional and extremely thorough.

When we have known we were missing some record, like the time many years ago when we had mislaid proof that some sheep we had bought from Cumbria were actually organic, the inspectors seemed to have an unerring ability to focus on the one question we were hoping they wouldn't ask!

But the sheep were indeed organic, and the next day we found the missing certificate to prove it.

The change is for the better

Of course, I sympathise with some of Julian's concerns. All farmers have to keep far more records than was the case 40 years ago.

But most of this record keeping is because of requirements from the Government or the European Union - like records of what nitrogen, including for organic farmers farmyard manure, we put on our fields each year.

And this is certainly not just "an exercise in bureaucratic tedium". The requirements arose because European farmers were putting so much manufactured nitrogen on their fields that we were, collectively, starting to poison our groundwater.

The Ecologist and many others rightly demanded controls for the public good.

Lobbying to reduce the bureaucratic load

For years, the Soil Association has been lobbying the government to say that this record-keeping, which all farmers now have to do as a result of an EU Nitrates Directive, should not apply to organic farmers.

This is because organic farmers don't use manufactured nitrogen fertilisers, and already have to keep records of farmyard manure and other nitrogen inputs, as part of our organic checks.

The duplication in record keeping is annoying, but the Soil Association is trying to get that removed. In Europe, the organic movement as a whole has made significant progress in terms of the reformed Common Agricultural Policy.

As a result, all of my and Julian's non-organic neighbours will have to keep extensive records about cropping, ecological focus areas and so on, in order to qualify for 30% of their Pillar 1 CAP payment. Organic farmers are exempt from that. Julian and other organic farmers should be delighted at this.

A close focus on the farm, and farm animals

But my own experience of inspections is absolutely nothing like Julian's in certain respects. Every organic inspection I have ever had has involved walking around the farm buildings, checking the grain store and other buildings, looking around the whole farm, and walking into several fields.

Livestock on the farm has always been looked at carefully. Indeed, in recent years, because of the Soil Association's introduction of new ways of checking on animal welfare, by looking more closely at how animals are actually behaving.

If anything Soil Association inspectors look at animals a great deal more carefully, and certainly more systematically, than ever used to be the case.

Opening the farm doors

Of course, Julian is right in saying that the world has changed since he first started organic farming in 1975. Organic food is rightly under far greater scrutiny. Public expectations are higher, and the need for us to be able to prove that the trust that people place in the integrity of organic is justified has never been greater.

This is partly because the whole of the farming and food system is gradually (far too gradually) becoming more open - something which the Soil Association and I think all organic farmers welcome. Organic farmers certainly have nothing to hide from the public.

Second, as the organic market around the world continues to grow, we become more of a threat to non-organic farmers, food manufacturers and retailers.

And in turn they place us under far greater scrutiny than was ever the case when Julian and a handful of other pioneers were starting out 40 years ago.

Increased care and professionalism

So things have changed since the early, pioneering days. Some of the additional paperwork is a pain, but then that afflicts all farmers, and indeed most areas of public and private life.

The increased care and professionalism with which organic inspections are carried out, is, I think, welcome, and certainly necessary in the face of higher public expectation and increased, often hostile scrutiny.

By coincidence, I had my own organic inspection last week. Everyone on the farm spent some time preparing for it, but we had a positive day and all of us felt at the end of it that if we hadn't been sticking to the rules, and producing food to the highest organic standards in ways which the public expect, our inspector would have known about it.

I suppose the fundamental difference between now and 1975, is that in 1975 organic inspectors and organic farmers could work together. But now, inspectors have to represent the public interest.

And for the sake of all organic farmers and organic businesses, it is a good thing that they do.

 


 

Peter Melchett is policy director of the Soil Association, the UK organic food and farming organisation. He runs an 890-acre organic farm in Norfolk, with beef cattle, sheep and arable crops. He is a member of the BBC's Rural Affairs Committee and was a member of the Department of Education's School Lunches Review Panel, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' Rural Climate Change Forum and Organic Action Plan Group.

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