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Reflections on Travels in Brexit-land

I arrived in the Republic of Ireland the day before the Brexit vote was held in June, and went on to Edinburgh, Scotland a couple of days later. My trip was primarily a family visit, but also gave me a chance to engage with a few organic-minded friends and organizations on the other side of the Atlantic. Though I was temporarily escaping the insane political scenario unfolding on the national level at home, the parallel and wildly unpredictable situation in my host country was as unanticipated as it was interesting to observe.

My discussions with representatives of several food and agriculture related organizations revealed a few commonalities with my own quest for a spirit of collaboration and unity among those striving for similar goals of a just and ecologically harmonious food system. In the meantime, another fracture within the organic community took place within the US—a fracture that I discussed from afar.

It was an honor to be asked to speak to the staff and a couple of illustrious visitors at the Elm Farm Organic Research Centre (ORC), about an hour by train from London, on July 5th. ORC’s Executive Director Nic Lampkin, author of a definitive text on organic farming and his wife and colleague, Susanne Padel, were welcoming and gracious hosts, having been followers of the controversies surrounding passage of the organic law and creation of the National Organic Program chronicled in Organic Revolutionary.

With a staff of 20 or so, ORC’s work covers a broad range of research into organic farming systems in Great Britain, including economics and policy as well as technical assistance to farmers. In 2015 they launched an on-line information resource called Agricology, which is similar to the USDA funded e-organic site. I was shocked to learn that the UK government offers scant support to farm-level consultants, and no longer funds the equivalent of our extension programs.

Writing in the current issue of the ORC Bulletin, Nic Lampkin asks, “Will Brexit fix it or wreck it?” His view on the potential impact on UK organic agriculture is not optimistic, and he notes that the UK has lagged behind other EU states in investing in organic and agroecological approaches, “contributing to the decline in organic land area and food sales,” with the result that the UK has no more land in organic production than it had 15 years ago—in sharp contrast to countries like Denmark, Germany, France, and Austria. Overall, the EU boasts 5.9% of its land in organic production. Nevertheless, with its paltry 3.3% of land in organic management, the UK compares favorably to the US level of less than 1%—thanks largely to EU’s subsidies that recognize the value of transitioning land to organic as a form of “ecosystem services.” “Without the support frameworks that the EU has provided,” asks Nic, “how much worse will things be in the UK in future?”

Back in Edinburgh, I was happy to connect with some like-minded leaders in the person of Pete Ritchie, Director of the dynamic coalition-building organization Nourish Scotland, and David Michie, Agricultural Development Manager at the Scotland office of the venerable Soil Association. Among the concerns expressed by Nourish Scotland is that “Brexit could mean a race to the bottom in environmental protection and workers’ rights,” including a promise made by one politician before the referendum to “ditch the precautionary principle”.

Each of these organic colleagues voiced similar frustrations with the divisions within the alternative agriculture community that limit the advancement of the organic sector. While the EU has not had to deal with the GMO labeling kerfuffle that has fractured the organic community here in the US, the attempt by some organic advocates to somehow impose limits on “commodified organic” production was mentioned in conversations as an impediment to expanding the market as well as the adoption of organic practices. Stories of intense rivalry between competing labels and disparagement of organic standards as insufficiently socially just, with too many farmers who are “only in it for the money,” resonated with some of the experiences I chronicled in Organic Revolutionary.

Interestingly, each of these conversations also included a question about why the US regulations prohibit any use of antibiotics to treat a sick organic animal, even with stringent restrictions on withdrawal times and requirements to implement measures to prevent the recurrence of such problems. Though technically a US organic farmer is required to treat an animal rather than let it suffer, it then loses its organic status and must either be sold to a conventional operation or slaughtered.

European farmers consider this an animal welfare issue, and it is also a subject of US-EU trade negotiations. In the convoluted world of organic equivalency agreements, we will not accept livestock products from the EU without certification that the animals were never treated with antibiotics. On their side, the EU will not accept products containing apples or pears from orchards that have been treated with antibiotics at blossom stage to control fireblight. The NOSB recently voted to remove the allowed use of antibiotics as a fireblight control from the National List, under pressure from consumer groups raising alarms about the perception of organic as meaning “antibiotic free”—see a report on that controversy. Despite all this posturing about consumer expectations of organic purity, very few consumers would hesitate to provide antibiotics to a child with a treatable infection.

As satirist Andy Borowitz commented after the Brexit results came in, the British can no longer claim to be smarter than Americans. My own key take-away from my Brexit-land adventure is that the need for solidarity among disparate movements to transform the food system towards a holistic, inclusive, organic approach, whatever label you prefer, transcends national boundaries. We must urgently stand together, however frustrating our political disagreements, to prevent the catastrophic loss of species, fertile soil, clean water, dignified livelihoods, and crucially, a livable planet.


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