5 January 2001

£13m funding falls short

By John Burns

THIS years £13m of funds for the organic farming scheme which opened on Tuesday (Jan 2) will be used up within five months, according to Soil Association predictions.

Speaking before the Soil Associations national conference which opens today (Fri) at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, Glos, Phil Stocker of the bodys produce services unit said British organic farming needed the same support levels as competitor countries.

Mr Stocker said there was a growing gap between the level of cash support for organic farming in the UK and the rest of the EU where organic farmers have access to ongoing annual payments as well as conversion grants.

About 200 farmers who started converting their land to organic production last year will miss out on the conversion grants under the latest funding package for the OFS because it is over six months since they first applied to join the scheme, according to Mr Stocker.

"We are collecting names and details of farmers in this position and will be asking MAFF to reconsider them. Some have missed the grant by one day."

The same situation could well happen again this summer when the oversubscribed scheme runs out, he says.

"That will leave farmers uncertain whether to start converting from June onwards. Yet that is the best time to start from a farming point of view. This stop-go approach is not the right way to get UK farmers meeting UK demand for organic food."

A key element in current organic food production thinking is close links between producer and consumer and minimal transport distances. That means UK food for UK consumers, Mr Stocker says.

Soil Association director Patrick Holden was expected to tell conference delegates that the UK organic food market is now the strongest in Europe.

But the strength of the UK market is attracting attention from the Danish organic farming industry which is gearing up quickly to supply organic pork and dairy products to British consumers.

And Mr Holden says the fact that Danish farm minister Ritt Bjerregaard is spending two days at the conference shows how seriously the Danes are taking the UK organic food market.

Mr Holden plans to repeat a warning to the Danes that they will be welcome to compete for British custom but only on certain conditions, which include:

&#8226 They must produce to UK organic standards;

&#8226 They must never sell at prices below production costs;

&#8226 They must accept that UK producers will encourage consumers to give preference to UK products;

&#8226 They must contribute to costs of organic food awareness promotion work;

&#8226 And they will only be welcomed as long as UK production is not meeting demand.

Germany is also scaling up organic production and its expansion plans will be detailed at the conference by Hartmut Vogtmann, president of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation.

Mr Holden believes they could eventually have a wider impact through CAP reform.

Prof Vogtmann will share the platform at the conference with David Arnold-Foster, the chief executive of English Nature, and environment minister Michael Meacher under the heading "organic farming and nature conservation". &#42

Patrick Holden… UK organic food market is the strongest in Europe.