Help us go organic with cash, farmers tell MAFF

07 July 1998

Help us go organic with cash, farmers tell MAFF

By Jonathan Riley and John Burns

FARM leaders have called on the Government to help meet growing consumer demand for organic food by paying more money to farmers who stop farming with chemicals.

The number of farmers applying to join the Governments organic aid scheme has surged considerably during recent months. But it still lags way behind demand for organic produce.

More than 140 applications to join the scheme were received by MAFF during the past six months, farm minister Jack Cunningham announced yesterday (Monday) at the Royal Show. Those applications will boost the UK area of organic farmland by almost 10% to more than 80,000 hectares.

Increased consumer interest in organic food: Visitors on the Soil Association stand at the Royal today

NFU president Ben Gill said farmers recognised the increased demand for organic produce, but many were put off from converting their farms because the cost was too high.

Part of the problem is that farmers must stop using chemicals for five years before obtaining full organic status. During that time they obtain lower yields, but not the premium prices that organic products command.

UK farmers are paid about £100/ha during the conversion period – about one-third of the amount paid to other EU farmers. Patrick Holden, director of the pro-organic Soil Association, said that it was vital farmers were given more assistance by Government during the conversion period.

“I am amazed that MAFF has not seized on a golden opportunity to support a sustainable and environmentally friendly form of farming, that would also make the Government immensely popular with the electorate,” he said.

Meanwhile, demand for organic food is such that many organic farmers now receive guaranteed high prices for their produce.

Premiums for organic lamb sold through the Organic Livestock Marketing Cooperative (OLMC) have been agreed until next May. The cooperative has also guaranteed beef prices for the next three months under a separate deal with buyers, which could be extended for the rest of the year.

Simon Tomlinson, OLMC chairman, said: “For the first time, producers have a guaranteed price for their lambs which gives them security – unlike conventional farmers who have to live with unpredictable prices that can fluctuate from week to week.”

But Mr Tomlinson warned that farmers tempted to farm organically must be fully committed if they are to survive the conversion period. In the absence of more Government aid, the OLMC will shortly announce its own scheme to assist conventional farmers to convert to organic production, he said.

Supermarkets claim that the lack of Government support for organic farming is restricting the supply of organic food available from UK farms.

About 70% of the organic food sold in the UK is imported. Demand is such that farm-gate prices are expected to remain high even if domestic supplies are increased.

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