Commons Committee backs action plan for organic farming

The Commons Agriculture Committee has published its report into organic farming, backing a UK organic action plan and making several practical and financial recommendations to develop the sector.

Following a period of consultation with interested parties, including supermarkets and representatives from agriculture (see related story), the Committee has welcomed the rapid increase in the organic industry. However, the report raises concern that such rapid growth might have negative effects on the credibility of the industry, such as through the swamping of the original principles of the movement by big business.

The Committee admits that there is an argument against the Government supporting such an industry when the market is so obviously strong, but emphasises that there is a need for funding during the vulnerable period during which a farm converts to an organic regime. The report states that the disruption in funding for organic farming last year, when the Organic Farming Scheme (see related story) ran out of money, was highly regrettable, and in future should be administered to ensure even funding across the whole year. However, the scheme reopened on 2 January 2001 with a 50% increase in funds to £18 million for this year, as well as a change in management, a Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson told edie.

The report also calls for an increase in government funded research into the health benefits of organic farming, pointing out that the Committee members have seen no evidence that would enable them to unequivocally the many claims made for organics. Information needs to be provided to consumers to enable them to make their own judgements on the benefits of produce, rather than on sentiments alone, says the report.

The Soil Association, the country’s leading organic campaign organisation and certification body, welcomes the report, calling on the Government to put the Committee’s recommendations into practice. “Until now the Government has played a passive role towards organic farming,” said Parick Holden, Director of the Soil Association. “Governments in other EU countries have pledged to make organic farming a strategic priority and we should do the same. Widespread organic farming would bring the country major benefits in terms of public health, rural employment, environmental protection and also economic savings. A proper rationale should mean the Government will give support in proportion to the sector’s ability to deliver these objectives.”

According to the soil association, the cost of organic food to consumers could be reduced with an improvement in the economic climate for organics which could be brought about through the adoption of a package of measures following the Committee’s recommendations. The Association also acknowledges the need for further research into the benefits of organic food and farming in order to maintain customer confidence during the current period of rapid growth.

“We are particularly delighted that the Committee proposes ‘organic stewardship’ payments for farmers in recognition of organic farming’s proven environmental benefits,” said Holden. “This should facilitate the expansion of UK organic production and help the Government meet its ambitious biodiversity targets.”

A further threat to the credibility of organic farming is that of the lower standards in other countries, resulting in a real need to remove discrepancies, says the Agriculture Committee. Currently, due to a lack of organic farms in this country, supermarkets are forced to import 70% of their organic produce.

Other recommendations made by the Committee include a single nation-wide certification and inspection scheme, stimulation by the Government of the development of small abattoirs, the development of supplier partnerships and marketing, and a possible subsidy regime where water companies offer top-up payments.

“We are delighted that the Committee agrees that an action plan is needed for organic farming,” said Catherine Fookes, Organic Targets Bill Co-ordinator from the pro-organics campaign group, Sustain. “The Minister of Agriculture has already agreed that an action plan would be useful so now we need them to put words into action. Without an action plan UK farmers will continue to lose out to overseas competitors.”

Some organic campaigners, however, are disappointed that the Committee has failed to recommend specific targets for increasing organic production, though the Organic Targets Bill, due for its second reading in the House of Commons on 9 February, will require 30% of England and Wales to be under organic regimes by 2010. “However, it contains some sound advice, not least that a more strategic approach is needed to develop the organic sector and more resources should be put into training and research to maximise the considerable benefits of organic farming,” said Sandra Bell, Food Campaigner from Friends of the Earth.

“There are several sound reasons for supporting the Organic Targets Bill,” says David Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON, the public services union. “For example, by creating up to 16,000 jobs, the Bill will benefit rural economies and in reducing pesticide use it will help the environment and wildlife.”

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