Support hinders progress
Prejudice is stopping organic farming reaching its full potential, according to a conference at the Royal Agricultural College. Tony McDougal reports
HOSTILITY within MAFF to the organic sector was a major factor for its failure to take a larger market share, despite increased interest from UK supermarkets.
Speaking at the 10th Soil Association conference at Ciren-cester, environmentalist Jonathon Porritt attacked MAFF civil servants for their negative attitude and described the financial support to the sector as pathetic.
Frustration at the lack of support from MAFF, despite its introduction of the Organic Conversion Information Service last year, was compounded by Dr Nick Lampkin, Department of Agricultural Economics, Univer-sity College Wales.
Dr Lampkin said the UK paid the lowest level of conversion support to producers in the EU, was one of three countries not to back up support through maintenance grants and had the third lowest take-up among member states.
While nearly 8% of Austrian farms and 1% of EU farms were organic, just under 0.5% of UK farms were registered organic.
Even though recent food scares and rising cases of food poisoning – up from 52,145 cases in 1990 to 82,587 in 1995 – costing the government £1bn, was driving consumers to the organic lobby, lack of government support was a telling factor, said Tim Lang, Institute of Food Policy, Thames Valley University.
However, supermarkets have noticed the consumer trend to more wholesome foods, he added. Tesco placed organic retail prices on the same footing as conventional goods in 45 stores in October and recorded a 50% jump in sales. Corporate affairs spokesman Alan McCloughlin said the scheme would go nationwide from the end of the month.
Patrick Holden, Soil Association chairman, welcomed Tescos decision to absorb price differentials and use organic goods as a loss leader saying that increased sales were encouraging.
Alan Wilson, Waitrose spokesman, argued that using organic goods as a loss leader was misleading to both suppliers and consumers. He also condemned the government saying he was frustrated the organic movement had not grown faster.
Up to 75% of UK organic food consumption is imported and for the first time Sainsbury sponsored 10 non-organic producers to attend the conference. Nicholas Weber, Sainsburys organic buyer, said vegetables, fruit and dairy products were selling well but there was too heavy a reliance on goods imported from Holland.
One of the 10 companies represented – the English Fruit Company Enfru – which has a turnover of £45m and serves all the major multiples said the organic market could be a way forward for some producers.
Adrian Barlow, marketing director, said organic products met stringent supermarket traceability and safety standards. But there were problems in storing produce and producing products that were both practically sensible and technically possible.
Supermarket sales of organic produce
SupermarketOrganic salesTop productNiche
* Seventy per cent of organic produce is imported. There are currently 650 UK organic registered farms with 36,744ha (90,760 acres) either converted or under conversion.