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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 January 2007, 14:36 GMT
Trying to stay true to its roots
By Sarah Mukerjee
BBC Environment Correspondent

It was six-thirty in the evening. Loath to leave the nice warm hotel, I scurried across the still-being-built complex of shops surrounding the Soil Association conference venue in Cardiff.

This area of 21st Century concrete regeneration would be the base, for the next couple of days, for an organisation more at home with wood, wool and hand-thrown pottery.

As I hurried, hunched against the biting cold, towards the organic supper that kicked off the conference, I was aware of people following in my footsteps.

Market stall with vegetables
Will this soon become too expensive to import?
More and more of them - almost as if they were choreographed - joined the throng. I half expected them suddenly to break out in some "Singing Detective" style song-and-dance number praising the virtues of organic potatoes.

But it was when I arrived at the conference centre itself that my jaw really dropped. I knew it was oversubscribed, but nothing had prepared me for the hundreds of people snaking around the hall. With trepidation, I asked the security guard where I should register.

"You what, love?"

"Register. For the conference. You know, organic food."

I think he was on the verge of calling the police, but after a few more minutes of premier league cross-purpose conversation, it transpired that I was in fact in the queue for the Willie Nelson concert, taking place at the same venue but in a different hall. How different this report might have been if I'd got in!

Eventually, though, I found the supper. People were discussing low-input rotation techniques (which, admittedly, anywhere other than a farming conference would sound distinctly dodgy) over a hearty supper of lamb stew.

It wasn't that long ago that the Soil Association's annual conferences, if they could be graced with that term, took place in village halls in obscure parts of the country. Within a few years, the organic movement has found itself swept from tree-hugging hippy obscurity to the mainstream.

We will have to think fairly radically about how we use the land
Patrick Holden, Soil Association director

Marks and Spencer (who are sponsoring the conference) spend large amounts of cash having a seductive-sounding woman describe in terms close to ecstasy how fantastic their organic stuff is.

And for an organisation that has spent most of its existence shouting angrily from the sidelines, this entry into the establishment takes quite a bit of getting used to.

They face a question that many other environmental charities are asking themselves: Now we have won many of the arguments, what do we do next ? And what do we say to all the people who are finally listening?

"One of the main themes of this conference is the farming future - and we are going to have to start thinking hard about the sort of agriculture Britain can sustain in the future," says Patrick Holden, the Soil Association's director.

"If - or, more likely, when - oil demand outstrips supply, and it becomes too expensive to import food from around the world, we will have to think fairly radically about how we use the land to support ourselves. This is of course on top of the pressures that the country's agricultural sector will face because of climate change."

Friendly roots

According to some of the speakers at the conference, this will mean many more people working on the land, communities having to find ways of feeding themselves, and getting used to living on a far more local scale.

Totnes in Devon, and Stroud in Gloucestershire are two towns where local people are setting up small-scale farming schemes and evening classes to make people aware of how to live a low-carbon lifestyle.

Sounds a bit hippy - but then, the organic sector would argue, that's a label they're used to.

The Soil Association prides itself, despite having grown over the years (this conference was a sell-out), on staying true to its friendly roots.

An "organic fashion show" after supper was not full of size zero models hungrily eyeing up the empty lamb stew bowls, but association staff, modelling the latest in environmentally friendly garments.

Peter Melchett
Air freight is an issue we have to address
Peter Melchett

The association's president, broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, sat on the floor and talked about the merits of organic woolly cardigans with TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (who later on not only modelled an organic woollen kilt, but also a pair of rather startling cotton pants that left disturbingly little to the imagination).

The show was compered by Tory quality-of-life policy-supremo Zac Goldsmith, (although for most of the events the models appeared to be very much in charge, as he struggled to describe tweed jackets and white suede wedding dresses).

But the leadership are tackling less fluffy issues. They are using the conference to launch a consultation on the environmental impact of air-freighting organic food.

Can an organisation that sets itself up as environmentally friendly really certify food flown thousands of miles to satisfy consumer demand for out-of-season goods?

The association's policy director, Peter Melchett, admits this has always been something of an Achilles heel for the movement: "Although the amount of air freighted organic produce is tiny, it's an issue we have to address.

"We realise this is not an environmental charity making a nebulous policy statement - the decision we make will have a commercial effect on small businesses here and in the developing world.

"For that reason, we will be talking to other environment and development charities, and retailers, before we make a decision. It could be more labelling, it could be ensuring the carbon used in transporting the goods is offset - but we could decide to deny an organic certificate to any food that travels by air.

Tonight, it's the conference dinner. I really, really hope Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall doesn't turn up in his organic pants. Or the wedding dress, for that matter.

Organic food imports under fire
26 Jan 07 |  Business
Food miles don't go the distance
16 Mar 06 |  Science/Nature


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