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Is UK organics being left behind by the world?

Date Published: 25/09/2013

Increasingly we’re seeing other nations recognising the value of organic farming methods and putting in measures to promote and support them. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be happening in the UK. OF&G’s Research and Development Officer, Steven Jacobs, ponders the problem…

When the state encourages environmentally sensitive practices in agriculture it can be done in ways that help local communities more and the profits of multinationals less. And state support of these farming practices is increasing in countries across the EU, except in England. Farming payments help to encourage farmers to produce good quality and quantities of food while working ever more closely with natural systems in an effort to maintain those systems so that future farmers will be able to produce food on those soils for many generations to come. Soil life is increasingly recognised as vital and its protection crucial for us all.

Of course we can also address the huge amounts of food waste we are currently seeing. And there are well recognised economic benefits to producing a little less but to do it very well. Local economies are stimulated when farmers adopt organic agriculture, as was made clear in this 2005 report from the University of Exeter, which said: “The results of this research largely confirm the results of previous studies in identifying a significant employment dividend associated with organic production.”

In the recently launched Irish ‘Organic Farming Action Plan 2013-2015‘, their minister Tom Hayes said: “The importance of our indigenous agriculture and food industry has never been as high. It is widely recognised as being fundamental to our export led economic recovery. The Organic Sector can play a role in this development. It is important therefore that all the relevant stakeholders including organic producers, processors, Organic Control Bodies and state agencies work together to ensure the Organic Sector in Ireland can realise its full potential.”

But English organic farmers and food producers face a distinct lack of support from our ministers. Conversion and maintenance payments have been higher in almost every other European member state for some time. And this disparity is increasing. What has long been a renowned, respected and wealth generating organic economy the English organic sector is rapidly falling behind it’s European neighbours. The diminishing UK organic sector is now in stark contrast to the growth of organic economies abroad – “France: organic industry doubles in five years“.

The even further reduction of investment in agri-environment schemes by the British government can only lead to even more UK farmers pulling out of schemes and food processors looking elsewhere for supplies of food produced under such strict environmental controls. So, imports will increase which can only further erode the British economy hitting farmers hardest and hurting us all before long.

Even as sales in the organic sector do start to recover in the UK, showing a return to confidence in British homes and a welcome return to a taste for food produced under the tightly controlled organic regulation that is statutory in all EU countries, Defra, the UK food and farming ministry, has been told by the UK Treasury to reduce spending across the board and to aggressively cut agri-environment schemes. Whereas other projects gain ground, have their budgets increased and attract weighty governmental support even when many feel this is not a sensible strategy (“HS2 is ‘grand folly’ says Institute of Directors“), environmentally sensitive management of our rural areas and the growth of local rural economies does not.

On 1 January 2015 the new Rural Development payments will begin, but not in England. No, English farmers wanting to join a stewardship programme designed to encourage environmental awareness and a more controlled management of biodiversity, carbon and chemical application will have to stand out in the cold for a full year longer than farmers in other European countries.

Trade in organic food across Europe and across the world is increasing. In the UK we will be producing less, importing more and wondering where our food will be coming from.