16 November 2001


The organic industry

can lead Britain to a

truly sustainable

agriculture, says

Peter Melchett

Despite the problems affecting farming, this is an exciting time, full of opportunity for the organic farming and food industry. Sir Don Currys policy commission on the future of farming and food has almost finished taking evidence, and the report is due early next year. Sir Don has been told firmly by the DEFRA secretary, Margaret Beckett that they must focus on "sustainable agriculture".

No modern system of farming is truly sustainable, even organic farming. Organic farming can reasonably claim that the system maintains soil fertility, and healthy crops and livestock, through mechanisms which are currently more sustainable than any other system, and which have the potential to be truly sustainable in future. Organic food is popular with the public and this popularity is growing. Modern societys views on a range of issues – protecting wildlife and natural resources, animal welfare, and healthy, locally-produced food – are moving in a direction which increases support for organics. The market is growing rapidly, and looks set to continue.

In the historic post-war settlement between society and the farming industry, the policy of producing more and cheaper food was unquestioned. It gave British farming what modern businesses call a licence to operate. To be sustainable, a business needs not only to be profitable, but also to have public support for the way it does business and the type of products it sells. To have a long-term future, businesses need to be in tune with public values. As Mrs Beckett put it at the Labour Party conference, there is no future for any industry "if it becomes out of tune with those on whom it depends for its markets, its custom and consequently its prospects for survival".

As a result of government policy over the past 50 years, British agriculture is out of tune with public values; it has lost its licence to operate from the public. However, as the old, overwhelming majority of farm production has lost public support, so organic farming has emerged as a potential new direction for farming.

The Soil Association accepts that organic farming is not yet truly sustainable, and that many aspects require improvement. Indeed, striving towards true sustainability require continual improvement in organic farming, food production and food retailing. The organic industry has set off down this road, and we believe that it can lead the way towards a truly sustainable future.

The scope for government action to aid this market-driven process is limited, but vital. First, the government should recognise that organic farming will play a central role in the future of British agriculture, because it delivers a wide range of public benefits, including the protection and restoration of biodiversity and natural resources, high standards of animal welfare, healthy food, and more jobs in farming.

Second, government support for organic farming should match our partners in the EU. That means improving the level and scope of conversion payments, and introducing continuing payments through an organic farming stewardship option, designed to secure real benefits for wildlife. While consumer demand drives the organic retail market, UK organic production is as affected by the economic signals from the CAP as the rest of farming. Almost all our EU competitors receive post-conversion, organic maintenance payments.

Third, the new government initiative on using public procurement to deliver sustainable development should target organic and local food.

We believe all farmers will welcome plans to keep some of the ever-growing agri-environment cash in farming, and our emphasis on buying locally produced food.

Modern societys views on a range

of issues… are moving in a direction which increases support for organics.

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