The Soil Association has revised its organic standards to ensure organic farmers and processors can provide the highest level of protection for the environment, food and livestock in the most straightforward way possible.

This follows a major review of the standards, with input from the public, farmers, expert advisers and the food industry. This public consultation, which took place in 2016, has resulted in standards that will be easier for both licensees* and the public to use and understand.

The Soil Association continues to have the highest UK organic standards, which will be strengthened even further in some areas, such as animal welfare.

The updated format of the standards will also make it more straightforward for farmers to become certified by the Soil Association.

For example, unnecessary duplication has been removed where requirements are covered adequately by other legislation.

The updated standards will come into effect from Spring 2019. They can be previewed online in a new user-friendly format that clearly outlines which standards are legal requirements and which are Soil Association higher standards.

Dr Benjamin Dent, chair of the Soil Association Standards Board, said: “We believe that the Soil Association’s higher standards are the right standards for organic food and farming in the UK.

“This has been an extremely thorough, evidence-based review. Our expert committees and consultations have ensured the new standards are practical for our licensees and encourage them to innovate, and that where we are more demanding than the regulations, that this is justified in terms of enhanced impacts on animal welfare and the environment.”

This review started long before Brexit negotiations and the Soil Association is working closely with government to ensure any impacts of Brexit will be mitigated for the organic sector and licensees.

Key changes for farmers will include

• Natural cover required on poultry ranges

Soil Association standards deliver the highest levels of animal welfare by ensuring all animals live a truly free-range life with access to pasture whenever weather conditions allow.

The provision of natural shelter, particularly trees, is an effective method to encourage birds to range further, which in turn will lead to even greater animal welfare and environmental benefits.

The Soil Association’s updated standards will require licensees to provide natural cover for poultry on at least 5% of the area available to their poultry. This standard will be launched in November 2020 to give licensees time to plant trees, bushes, or adapt their environments if necessary.

• Strengthened approach to antibiotics with a ban on the use of colistin

Soil Association standards will continue to ban the preventative use of antibiotics and any use of antibiotics of critical importance for human and animal health where the use of other treatment would be effective.

• Removal of unnecessary barriers and bureaucracy for veterinary medicines

Soil Association’s previous higher standard required organic farmers to wait for three times the recommended withdrawal period for veterinary medication to ensure that organic animal products are not contaminated with medicinal residues.

However, extensive research shows that the methods for determining standard withdrawal periods for veterinary medication have improved considerably in recent years. The updated standards will therefore now ask organic farmers to wait for twice the required withdrawal period, in line with the EU organic regulation, as the Soil Association considers this to be appropriately robust.

• Recorded CCTV in abattoirs

Animal welfare is at the heart of organic. The Soil Association will explicitly require CCTV in all licensed abattoirs in places where CCTV is not already a legislative requirement, and the updated standards have clarified permitted methods of emergency killing.

• Less repetition, easier to follow

The documents have been slimmed down to avoid repetition. For example, nine previous standards banning genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are now covered in a single, more comprehensive standard, to make it more practical for licensees to understand what they need to do. And where non-organic legislation, such as the Welfare of Animals (Transport) Order, now covers any former requirements, the updated standards highlight that instead.

• Freedom to innovate

The new standards focus on the goal rather than prescribing how you get there.

The Soil Association will still provide guidance on how to achieve the standards, but there will be more freedom for farmers to demonstrate that they meet the standards in the best way for them, their farm, and their animals.

*Licensees refers to businesses certified with Soil Association Certification.