10 April 1998

Cash now for more organic conversion

By Jonathan Riley

EXTRA money to encourage more farmers to convert to organic production will be made available immediately.

Farm minister, Jack Cunningham, announced the new financial package as part of the organic aid scheme review. The aim of the extra cash is to increase the proportion of organic production from its current 0.3% of UK agricultural output, which Dr Cunningham has branded an abysmal record.

The payments for producers farming land eligible under the arable aid payment scheme, will increase from £250/ha (£101/acre) to £450/ha (£182/acre) for the five-year conversion period. For ineligible land – excluding unimproved land and rough grazing – rates will rise to £350/ha (£141/acre).

Further changes to the aid scheme could also be made later in the year, once governments comprehensive spending review is completed. But he emphasised that he did not want to dissuade producers from converting immediately.

And he pledged that applications processed now would still be able to take advantage of any improvements to the scheme under the spending review. Dr Cunningham also announced an extra £337,000 for organic research.

NFU president, Ben Gill, welcomed the increased payments. With 70% of organic produce imported, there was clearly an increasing demand, he said.

"The changes to the funding for organic farming will encourage more conventional farmers to look at the opportunities offered by organic production systems," Mr Gill added.

But Patrick Holden, director of the main organic promotion body The Soil Association, said the revised scheme failed to deliver any substantial support for a significant expansion of organic farming in the UK. "The review has not recognised the strategic importance of environmental management. And maintenance payments for organic production have not even received a mention.

"A limit on payments to 300ha also fails to encourage large-scale uptake of organic farming," he said.

But survey results, published this week by the government-funded Environmental and Social Research Council, have shown that producers do not convert to organic farming solely for economic reasons.

Nearly two-thirds of converts cited environmental principles as the reason for changing.

Only 27% of conventional producers surveyed were aware that financial incentives to convert to organic production existed.

Most conventional producers were put off organic farming by the limited market outlets and the lower yields expected. &#42