We are absolutely delighted to welcome Helen Browning, the Chief Executive of the Soil Association, to River Action’s Advisory Board! In our latest blog, we find out more about Helen’s life and professional experience as a leading figure in agri-politics and organic farming.
Tell us about yourself…
I’m an organic farmer in North Wiltshire, where alongside a diversity of enterprises
including dairy, pigs, cereals, horticulture and agroforestry, we run our village pub/hotel
(The Royal Oak) and sell our products into national retailers as well as locally. I’m also CEO
of the Soil Association, and a trustee of the Food Farming and Countryside Commission.
What first sparked your interest in river protection?
My father was a great and keen fisherman, and so we spent much of our childhood on river
banks, especially the River Wye where we have long had a fishing lodge. The log books there
detail the decline in salmon over the last hundred years, and especially since the 80s. So
we’ve known for a long time that there is a problem, but that’s accelerated in recent years
due to changes in farming practice, especially (in the case of the Wye) the move to maize
crops and the increase in intensive poultry units. At the Soil Association, we’ve campaigned
on these issues for some time.
You have had a number of roles in agri-politics over the years – including the Government’s Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food. What are the biggest changes you have seen in the way that we, as a nation, eat and farm?
Over the first three decades of my working life, it was hard to make progress on the issues I
care most about: the decline of nature due to inappropriate farming, and animal welfare.
Biodiversity has continued to decline, soils have been losing their resilience and intensive
pigs, poultry and dairy continues… though there have been some improvements in welfare
standards, compared to much of the rest of the world. In the last few years, however, things
do seem to be changing, largely because farmers are finding that the chemicals that have
allowed them to ignore good husbandry have stopped working or are under review because
of their environmental or human health impacts. And finally, there’s a recognition of the
importance of soil health; soils in some places have organic matter levels down at 1 or 2%
and that makes them expensive to cultivate. So now it feels as though there are an army of
farmers getting interested in ‘regenerative’ techniques and that’s exciting, if long overdue!
In terms of the way we eat, though, things are still getting worse. Over half of our food is
‘ultra-processed’ even though the evidence is growing that this is terrible for our health. Our
children may be getting nearly two thirds of their nutrition – if you can call it such – that way.
At the Soil Association we ask that every child must have at least one healthy, sustainable
meal each day, and our Food for Life programme works in over half England’s primary
schools to make that a reality. The bottom line is that if we don’t feed people well, we will
continue to pay a very high price by way of NHS costs. Diet related ill health costs the nation
a fortune every year, and our mental as well as physical wellbeing is impacted heavily too.
You run a mixed organic farm in Wiltshire. What drew you to farming and what do you
enjoy most about it?
I’m from a long line of farmers, and I wanted to farm myself from an early age. I grew up on
the tenanted farm that I, these days with my brilliant daughter and son-in-law, now run. I
was lucky to have a wonderful father who didn’t see my being a girl as a barrier, and gave
me an early opportunity to take on the tenancy. I’ve always loved being outside and active,
working with animals and the land, and having the freedom that running your own business
brings… along with all the responsibilities and pressures, of course!
What role do farmers and the agricultural industry play in cleaning up our rivers?
We need to ensure that we aren’t polluting them, for a start! This can happen in a number
of ways, such as inadvertent slurry seepage from land or storage facilities, or through soil
run off if land isn’t always protected by a growing crop; maize and potatoes leave the land
especially vulnerable to this. If more nutrients, whether from animals or artificial fertilisers,
come onto the farm than go off the farm in food, then the system is likely to leak nitrogen
and phosphates into drainage channels that end up in our streams and rivers. So having the
right number of animals for the land that’s available, only applying fertilisers if they are
really needed, investing in good manure storage and never leaving soil bare especially on
slopes are sensible precautions. We may need to invest in fencing off waterways to prevent
animal access, or plant woodlands along banks to protect them further. And reduce our use
of agrochemicals as much as possible, as these may also impact on river life.
Having stopped the pollution, we can help with the clean up in some places by creating
wetlands that allow nutrients and silt to be cleansed out of waterways, while creating
opportunities for wildlife too. This can also slow water flow, which can prevent flooding
downstream and maintain water levels during dry times.
Most of these activities require investment, so we need to ensure there are the funds
available to help, and in the case of overstocking, to incentive farmers, who may have spent
much capital in good faith, to change their system while maintaining their livelihoods.
In 2011, you were appointed as the Chief Executive of the Soil Association. Tell us more about the charity and the part that you play in campaigning for sustainable food, farming and land use.
The Soil Association was founded in 1946, to research and communicate the ‘vital
relationship between the health of soils, plants, animals and people’. Today we have five big
- Every farmer to have a resilient and profitable pathway to agroecology/nature
- Every forest to be regeneratively managed for the benefit of climate, nature and
- Every child to have at least one healthy and sustainable meal a day, setting the
habits of a lifetime
- Local food system leaders are well supported nationally, so they can scale up their
- Organic food is available, affordable and desirable to everyone.
We are an unusual charity, to be working on so many fronts, and in so many ways: through
practical work on the ground, influencing and advocacy, advice, training, standards setting,
and running major programmes like Food for Life, Sustainable Food Places, and Innovative
Farmers. We also have within the Soil Association group the SA Land Trust which will accept
farmland that donors wish to continue under enlightened management after their lifetimes;
Soil Association Certification, which provides confidence to consumers through auditing to
organic standards, and for forests, to FSC and PFRC standards. Our latest addition is Soil
Association Exchange, which measures the ecological impacts of farming, advises farmers
how they can improve their performance and seeks to find financial rewards for them for
Even from this short resume, you can tell that I’m never bored, and always have more to get
my head around than I have the time to do! Which I guess is why I’m still here. It’s such a
fantastic team, ambitious for change, and constantly exploring new ways of achieving that.
And finally, In your opinion, what needs to change in order to rescue Britain’s rivers?
We need to massively reduce pollution from farming and human waste. This will require
investment and long-term commitment from society and our political leaders, both
nationally and locally.