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Glorious mud

Interview with Soil Association director Helen Browning

Interview with Soil Association director Helen Browning

The Soil Association is on the front line of the battle for sustainable food and farming. We talk to its new director, Helen Browning about the challenges and opportunities facing the organic champions in their efforts to ensure everyone has access to the best possible food.

Soil Association Helen browningFrom the ground up

“The main challenge facing the Soil Association is to ensure we’re making the biggest contribution to resolving some of the key issues of our times. What’s clear is that we need to invest in the root causes to find the fundamental solutions to the problems we face. The organic principle is about a broad perspective of health – if we get the basics right the rest flows from there. Our starting point is the soil, but the principles can be applied quite widely. They stand as true for sorting out school dinners as for investing in the soil. We need to get to the real heart of things, not just tackle the symptoms above ground.

Small is beautiful

“The world is starting to polarise. There’s a conflict between people’s appetite for more sustainable food, and the further industrialisation of farming, like the proposed ‘mega diary’ at Nocton in Lincolnshire. In recent years we felt people had recognised that ‘commercial’ farming had gone too far. But the new economic pressures (for some, the new commercial opportunities) will cause a further driving of the wedge between those that believe increased size and scale is the solution, and the people who see the need for more sustainable food and farming. Bigger isn’t always worse but, for example, I don’t think the scale of Nocton’s operation fits with the rural landscape of this precious land.

“ What’s clear is that we need to invest in the root causes to find the fundamental solutions to the problems we face.”

Helen Browning, director of the Soil Association

“I’d like to hear less about intensive farming, and more of the term ‘ecologically intensive’. We don’t seem to have grasped the whole concept that the most bio-diverse farms are the most productive. A well-managed, diverse acre of land can produce more calories and nutrition than conventionally farmed monoculture.

Raspberry Soil AssociationWe need productive food systems, but we also need to make room for nature and for animal welfare. We can’t throw those out for the want of food. For the Soil Association, it’s about reconciling that ever-present need for food with biodiversity, with animal welfare and human wellbeing. Find the right balance and everyone will benefit.

Food for life

“I’m not interested in organic food being for a middle class minority. Good food is a fundamental human right and a fundamental government responsibility. We just need to make it easy for people to choose good food. It isn’t about being sanctimonious – give people the right options and they’ll make the right choices.
“Partnership is critically important to the organic movement. The Soil Association is one of a whole galaxy of organisations that are in the same mindset and are working towards the same goals. But we need to pull together to make the most of our resources, particularly during tough times when funding is tight. We can be much more synergistic if we work together.”

Helen Browning

With 25 year’s experience as an organic farmer and as former farming director and chair of the Soil Association, Helen has played an active role in taking organics from ethical niche to mainstream market. After a one year stint as external policy director at the National Trust, Helen has just returned to lead the Soil Association as their new director. Helen runs Eastbrook organic farm in Wiltshire, which spans across 1,337 acres in the Wiltshire Downs and comprises pigs, dairy, beef, veal, sheep and arable crops. With its own pub, The Royal Oak, and products in the major supermarkets, Eastbrook Farm truly encompasses the complete food to fork experience.


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