24 January 2001
Stop-go funding ‘hampers organics’

By Donald MacPhail

EFFORTS by farmers to convert to organic production are being hampered by stop-go government funding, claims a cross-party group of MPs.

The flagship Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) was last year oversubscribed within months, leaving producers uncertain whether support would be available.

And within three weeks of it reopening on 02 January, applications had been received for 3 million of the 13m available.

In a report published on Wednesday (24 January), the Agriculture Committee says funding availability holds back conversion, undermining UK competitiveness.

“The disruption in the provision of aid for organic farming at this crucial time has been highly regrettable,” say the MPs.

“It is clear that some farmers have lost out because of the unfairness and lack of information.”

The committee calls for the Government to ensure that the OFS is administered to provide even funding and applications across the whole year.

The MPs ask whether any aid should be given, but conclude that the supply gap, foreign subsidies and social and environmental benefits justify support.

But producers seeking to go organic would face additional bureaucracy if committee proposals were accepted by ministers.

The MPs say a 2003 Government review should switch aid to an organic stewardship scheme with clearly defined goals to deliver environmental benefits.

Applicants would be required to produce a business plan, accompanied by a statement of validity from a qualified agricultural advisor.

Quantifying proven public benefits of organic cultivation is vital in a sector which has relied on unsubstantiated health and nutritional claims, say the MPs.

“The industry may need to be less messianic and more market-oriented in its public presentations.”

Private-sector aid, such as water company top-up payment initiatives and supermarket schemes, are to be encouraged, says the committee.

It also recommends that the Government fund local marketing schemes such as farmers markets and box schemes.

Around 3% of UK farmland is cultivated organically and the annual market is expected to break through the 1bn mark by 2002.