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The Government needs to formally recognise the public benefits of organic farming

Date Published: 06/02/2018

Organic regulation

OF&G’s latest policy paper, An Organic Systems Approach to the Provision of Public Goods, looks at how the UK can benefit from a systematic approach to agriculture.

Roger Kerr, chief executive of OF&G – the UK’s largest certifier of organic land – highlights the main points from the report.

 

If the government is serious about ‘public money for public goods’, organic farming systems must be officially recognised and supported post-Brexit. OF&G are writing a series of policy papers designed to help inform and shape the debate taking place about what we all want for our food and farming policies in the United Kingdom.

Farming techniques adopted and developed since the Second World War and encouraged by farm payment policy have led to several systemic failures. This is evident in the continued decline of biodiversity, soil degradation and poor water quality, and those failures come at a cost to society.

Embracing change

The development of a new UK Domestic Agricultural Policy (UK DAP) offers an opportunity to address these challenges.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has indicated in his landmark farming speech on at the Oxford Farming Conference on 4 January that the Government is prepared to pay to support the delivery of public goods.

“We have to embrace change which secures a more sustainable future for those who will inherit what we have built,” he said, promising new support for those who ‘choose to farm in the most sustainable fashion’.

‘Public money for public good’ is a core principle guiding reform of the UK agricultural support policy. Behind the catchy phrase is an acknowledgement that society needs to support food production based on the premise of resource conservation and the delivery of public goods, such as habitats for wildlife, flood resilience and good quality air, water and soil.

Preserving public goods

Organic farming is a systematic, regenerative farming approach that combines modern science and technology with traditional farming practices to maintain long-term fertility of the soil, use less of the Earth’s finite resources whilst producing high quality, nutritious food.

Organic techniques have been developed from an understanding of and research into soil science, crop breeding, animal husbandry and ecology. Consequently artificial fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives are generally prohibited. By farming in this way, the organic approach simultaneously delivers many of the public goods identified by Mr Gove.

However in preserving public goods, organic farming systems have – to date – had to bear much the cost directly, as seen in the premium currently paid by consumers of organic food. If organic production was rewarded by society for the value it provides through the multiple public goods it delivers, then potentially organic food would be more accessible to all.

Measuring and rewarding

In our new policy paper An organic systems approach to the provision of public goods, we set out an integrated definition of public goods, taking into account the need to measure and reward their delivery.

Organic represents a systematic approach to food production based on the premise of resource conservation, one where soil and ecological health is central. Consequently, we believe it needs the support of industry and Government to provide the necessary critical mass to see it deliver on its true potential.

A fair reward for public goods

We can no longer put clean water, biodiversity and climate challenges on hold whilst we sort out soils, any more than we can sort out biodiversity issues but ignore other challenges. We require a cyclical and regenerative approach to food production which addresses many of these challenges simultaneously.

With that in mind, OF&G’s policy paper calls for:

  • Organic farming to be recognised as a distinct farming system, within which a number of public goods are delivered simultaneously by virtue of the fact that a farmer is simply farming organically
  • The delivery of these public goods to be recognised and rewarded adequately. These costs should not be passed onto organic consumers as happens currently
  • Increased agro-ecological farmland. Within the new UK DAP it is recommended that agro-ecological farming should account for around 20% (1 acre in 5) of the UK agricultural land area, with organic farming representing half of that total area

Government must take this opportunity to integrate organic within its new and innovative UK DAP. Our food system faces multiple challenges which will require a diverse set of solutions.

Right now, organic production provides one approach which represents a cohesive, well-defined and regulated strategy toward resource conservation and regenerative food production, and OF&G is calling for Government to recognise and value organic food production with the UK DAP accordingly.

Further reading

Food waste – https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2017/research/over-eating-food-waste/

Public health – https://euobserver.com/health/139394

Environmental degradation – http://www.nature.com/news/the-business-case-for-soil-1.21623

Sustainable Food Trust report –http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/hidden-cost-uk-food/%5D