4 April 1997

Going organic has never been so popular…

By Tony McDougal

INTEREST in organic farming in the UK has reached an all-time high, according to MAFF.

Enquiries to its organic conversion information scheme have been three times higher than anticipated with 887 responses from farmers since its launch by junior farm minister, Tim Boswell, last June.

Highest interest came from beef and sheep farmers from the south-west and West Midlands.

Simon Brenman, MAFF organic aid spokesman, said that if all the 446 follow-up advisory visits resulted in conversions, a further 40,000ha (98,800 acres) of land would go into organic production.

At present, there are only 600 farmers with 50,000ha (123,500 acres) representing 0.3% of UK farmers in organic production.

While accepting the 3% organic producer target set by former farm minister, Gillian Shepherd, for 2000 was unlikely to be met, Mr Brenman said the UK market for organic food had risen sharply, from £40m in 1987 to more than £150m in 1994.

The figures were released at the launch in London on Wednesday of the NFUs first major organic publication by deputy president Tony Pexton. He said it was vital farmers were aware of the opportunities within the organic sector and the rise in consumer demand.

Stressing there were pitfalls as well as profits to be encountered, Mr Pexton said the NFU was setting up a working party to specifically look at organic farming.

His comments were welcomed by Patrick Holden, Soil Association director, who said consumers were looking for improved traceability, food safety and quality, high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection.

Mr Holden said a recent Soil Association commissioned MORI survey had shown that if the problems of price and availability were to be overcome, 61% of consumers would prefer to buy organic food.

Retailers are also showing renewed interest in the organic sector. Marks & Spencer, which withdrew from selling organic produce eight years ago claiming products were too inferior, announced this week it planned to move back into the market.

Ray Maynard, Tesco organic buyer, said the firms decision to sell organic food at cheaper conventional prices last October had led to a 300% jump in demand within its 150 stores. However, 70% of organic products sold in the UK are still imported.

Mark Houghton-Brown, who has converted his 753ha (1860 acre) arable farm into an organic mixed enterprise near Shaftesbury, Wilts, said it was vital MAFF paid producers maintenance grant aid along with higher conversion support if organic farming was to succeed.n