29 July 1997
Government announces organic farming package
By Boyd Champness
THE government is expected to increase funding to farmers who convert their properties from conventional to organic farming methods, in a bid to stem the flow of organic food imports.
The British market for organic produce has increased from about £40 million a year in 1987 to about £200m – of which almost 80% has to be imported. But while the government is expected to boost payments to farmers making the conversion away from pesticide farming, the new package is unlikely to include maintenance payments.
All EU countries other than Britain, France and Greece continue to make maintenance grants to farmers once conversion is completed, whereas the UK only supports farmers during the five-year conversion period.
Announcing the review today, junior farm minister Elliot Morley said it wasnt the governments intention to introduce maintenance packages, but refused to rule them out altogether following questions from journalists:
“A fresh look is needed to see if the structure of the aid could be improved. We are seeking views from consumers, environmentalists and farmers to help us in that task,” he said.
Interested parties have until September 26 to comment; details of the package and payments will be announced next Spring.
In the past, the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has argued that organic farmers do not need maintenance grants once they have converted because organic produce attracts a premium in the marketplace and in shops. Consumers can expect to pay 25-30% more for organically-grown food.
MAFF has also argued that, because yields from organic farms are lower than those of conventional farms, they hold an advantage when it comes to Common Agricultural Policy subsidies. Since the 1992 CAP reforms, farmers are rewarded on area rather than output.
Mr Morley announced the review at Eastbrook Farm, Wiltshire, one of the largest and most successful organic farms in the UK. The farm is owned by Helen Browning, chairman of British Organic Farmers, the producer wing of the UKs main organic body, the Soil Association.
Ms Browning welcomed the review, but said organic farmers needed maintenance grants because they were “nervous” about leaving conventional practices behind. “Its a long-term commitment and producers need to know that there is going to be a stable market at the end of the day. They need to know that there is some sort of safety net and, until they get this, they wont be confident that the government is committed to organic farming,” she said.
Ms Browning also pointed out that the UK ranked third last in the EU when it came to government funding for organic farming. “There is tremendously strong consumer demand for organic produce. A recent survey suggested that 61% of customers would prefer to buy organic foods if the availability was better and prices lower.”
In Britain, there are 820 organic farmers, representing about 0.3% of all farmers and land farmed. This compares unfavourably to the top EU performers such as Sweden and Austria, who have 8.6% and 8% of their land under organic farming. A number of EU countries have pledged to have at least 10% of their farming land dedicated to organic farming by 2000.
Under the current conversion scheme, British farmers who switch to organic methods are eligible for grants averaging £50 a hectare a year over five years. The average payment in the EU is close to £150 per hectare, with Austria paying £209/ha and Finland as much as £325/ha.