Select Committee on Agriculture Second Report



Government support for organic farming

79. Although financial subsidies to organic farmers are the most obvious and debated aspect of public sector support for the sector, there are other ways in which the Government offers assistance. MAFF included in its summary of such measures: responsibility for setting and maintaining standards through UKROFS and negotiating organic standards within the European Union.[210] We have discussed these matters in Section IV above. In this section of the Report we concentrate on two further measures highlighted by MAFF, namely, research and development and advice and training, and on a further potential role, proposed by many witnesses, of devising a Government strategy for the expansion of the organic sector.

Research and development

80. The policy objectives of MAFF's research programme for organic farming are: to remove constraints to organic production in order to make organic conversion more attractive to conventional farmers; to provide information on the economics of organic conversion to inform the grant scheme; and to provide information on the environmental impact of organic farming in comparison with conventional farming, to inform the main policy rationale for organic support.[211] Within the programme, the largest element (40 per cent) consists of system studies of organic production within particular sectors (dairy, beef and sheep, arable, field vegetables, pigs, poultry). Generally associated with linked commercial organic farms, the studies cover assessment of farming techniques and system economics. The rest of MAFF's research is into economics (the causes of differences in profitability between organic farms and a general assessment of the economics of organic farming); specific constraints to organic production (control of pests, diseases and weeds, the management of animal health, the supply of nutrients, the use of break crops, the selection of appropriate varieties, and the production of organic seeds); impacts of organic farming upon the environment (including biodiversity implications and the impact of organic farming on soil health); and technology transfer (a strong emphasis in each project on information dissemination, reviews of research and the collation of advisory information).[212]

81. The research programme is informed by advice from the UKROFS Committee on R&D which is intended to reflect the research priorities of the organic farming community. There is also "good contact" with other research bodies with expertise in organic research within the UK, other funders of such research and the organic sector bodies.[213] The programme will be reviewed in 2001 with input from these bodies. The Chief Scientist's Group expected that the share of resources allocated to environmental interactions would increase in the future in order to demonstrate the environmental benefits of organic farming upon which government support for the sector is predicated.[214] Other priorities identified included the ongoing research into technology transfer and constraints on production and additional areas including "sensitivity of economic performance to price premia and the effect of subsidies; horticultural conversion and production; [and] other standards issues, particularly in relation to the recently agreed Community livestock rules, and possibly further work on the interaction of organic farming with GM crops." [215]

82. Issues raised by witnesses concerning MAFF's research into organic farming centre on the size of the programme as well as its scope. Forecast expenditure for 2000-01 is £2.1 million, with a total of £5.8 million over the lifetime of the current projects.[216] This is out of an overall MAFF spend on research of approximately £104 million.[217] The percentage spend on organic research reflects the percentage of land currently farmed organically at 2.1 per cent and 2.3% per cent, respectively. It has been argued that in order to help organic farming expand, the budget for research and development needs to grow significantly: the Soil Association put the case for 30 per cent of the overall budget.[218] At the moment, there are no plans for an increase on anything like this scale. The Consultation Document on MAFF's research 2001-2005 indicated that "The size of the research programme [for organics] is likely to remain at about the current level for the period of this Strategy".[219] This would imply that the relative proportion of the research budget spent on organics is going to fall increasingly behind the proportion of organic production in the UK. In considering the case for faster growth, we are mindful that much of MAFF's "conventional" research is highly relevant to the organic sector (and vice versa much organic research has relevance to conventional production). For example, Mr Morley drew our attention to MAFF's £8 million research programme on biological control.[220] In addition, other funding has been made available in the form of a Government grant of £2.2 million to establish a European organic top fruit centre at East Malling, under the auspices of Horticultural Research International.[221] Nevertheless, we believe that the Government should consider increasing its budget for organic research and development to take account of its expectations for the market and in line with the need for further research into the areas we outline below.

83. We identified four broad areas into which more research was necessary in order to encourage successful organic production in the UK. These are environmental impacts; technical research, including pesticides; animal welfare issues; and the scientific basis of the claims made for organic farming and the protocols imposed on organic farmers. As we have noted above, MAFF's research programme includes work on most of these elements but it is worth highlighting the apparent gaps or shortcomings in that programme. With regard to the environment, we were told that this was the area in which most work had been carried out (for example, the studies by English Nature and the Soil Association into the biodiversity benefits of organic farming)[222] but that it was still an issue which needed exploring in more depth, particularly with a view to identifying the components within organic farming which deliver environmental benefits.[223] On the other hand, HRI complained that MAFF's organic R&D budget was "heavily focussed towards environmental impacts", leaving insufficient "scope for strategic, production-targeted R&D aimed at improving yields, quality, efficacy of disease control and overall efficiency" as is necessary to meet the Government's policy of increasing organic production in the UK.[224] The Soil Association also believed that "We desperately need more research into some techniques within organic farming".[225] We were told that there were particular problems with the development and registration of organic pesticides because of the size of the market relative to the costs of registration.[226] A case could therefore be made for the Government to step in.

84. The other two areas identified as lacking in research relate more to doubts over the benign effects of organic farming. Animal welfare has come to the fore with the agreement of the livestock regulations, with the result that there have been calls for much more research into organic farming practices in this sector and possible improvements. The Veterinary Department at the University of Reading submitted a list of projects which should be undertaken and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons drew our attention to the particular difficulties of alternative medicines which have not been tested to the same rigorous standards of safety and efficacy as conventional ones.[227] The National Office of Animal Health (NOAH) wanted to extend this to include "more research ... devoted to an open-minded investigation of some of the claims made by organic farming".[228] This call was seconded by other witnesses. Not surprisingly, most of them were not what might be termed part of the organic movement but not all of them were hoping to see the case proven against organics. For example, HRI, which runs a considerable programme of organic research in addition to the new European Centre for organic fruit,[229] was one of the strongest proponents of the "need to understand and underpin systems and protocols".[230] Such research could provide the scientific basis for organic agriculture, the absence of which was decried by another expert, Professor McKelvey.[231] We are aware that some work has been carried out into the claims of the organic movement, most recently by the Royal Agricultural Society of England,[232] but we believe that there are three reasons why such research is essential and should be carried out by a reliable source, independent of either the conventional or the organic sector. First, it is important that Government policy be based on hard fact, rather than supposition. Second, it would assist the organic sector if it were known that there was a scientific basis for the demands they were making of their producers in setting standards and the promises they were offering to consumers. Third, such research should also isolate the elements within organic production protocols which lead to the desired benefits, with the result that these techniques may be applied more effectively both on conventional and organic farms. We recommend that MAFF commission additional research into the environmental implications, technical issues, animal welfare and verification of claims made in connection with organic farming on public policy issues such as food safety to supplement its existing programme.

85. Research on its own is not enough and we welcome the recognition of MAFF that it is equally important to disseminate the results of research. We stress the benefits of treating organic and conventional production as part of the same spectrum, with the outcome of research in one sector being applied to the other. We should also like to draw attention to experiments in integrated crop management, such as those run by the CWS in Leicestershire which seek to identify and apply the best practices from both systems. We believe that there is much to be learned from such experiments. A further consideration is collaboration with other institutes to ensure that efforts are not duplicated, either within the UK or more widely. HRI pointed to the existence of "well funded research establishments with programmes dedicated to organic research and production" in several other European countries.[233] We expect MAFF to make full use of the opportunities for co-working with these institutes. However, we recognise that there is also an issue of competitiveness and it is vital that the UK maintains a scientific edge in this expanding area in order to boost UK industry. The forthcoming review of MAFF's research programme is an ideal opportunity for MAFF to respond to the concerns expressed about the scope of its research and development of organics. We will examine the results with close interest.

Advice and training

86. One of the farmers to whom we spoke in the course of the inquiry told us that, in undergoing the conversion of his farm, "I think a very practical advisory service on agronomy would be a very valuable thing to me, perhaps more so than the financial side of it".[234] Advice is available to farmers considering conversion from the MAFF-funded Organic Conversion Information Service (OCIS). OCIS provides a dedicated telephone helpline (run by the Soil Association) and a free advisory visit of up to one and a half days from advisers based at the Organic Advisory Service at Elm Farm Research Centre to help the farmer decide whether conversion is a viable proposition.[235] MAFF has also commissioned an organic research database and software to assist advisors, the results of which were expected by the end of 2000.[236] Training for farmers is funded within the new rates of payment for the Organic Farming Scheme and could be increased if the Government receive suitable proposals for organic training schemes under the ERDP budget for training for rural sectors.[237]

87. Mr Morley was satisfied with the Government's strategy for advice and training[238] but others felt that, while the quality of advice had improved,[239] there was still an issue to be resolved around the provision of training and advice services not just for farmers considering conversion but for existing producers, processors, retailers, consumers and other groups working with the agricultural sector, such as vets.[240] We note the pressures placed on OCIS with the huge increase in the number of farmers wanting initial advice about conversion. However, it is clear that there is a need for practical, readily available advice for farmers past this stage who are no longer eligible for OCIS services. Such advice need not be provided directly by MAFF, as indeed the OCIS helpline is contracted out at the moment, but it probably does require MAFF funding and planning to ensure that the level of service meets the demands made upon it. For example, one farmer praised the Lincolnshire Organic Producers Limited for its constructive advice, an organisation subsidised by MAFF but, we are told, unique of its kind.[241] We recommend that MAFF review the provision of advice to the organic sector in the light of its commitment to organic farming, to ensure that the advice available is adequate and meets the needs of producers in conversion and post conversion and others involved in the sector.

88. Increasing advice services will require a corresponding increase in the number of trained advisers. At the moment, the provision of education is patchy. We understand that there is only one MSc course in the UK on organic farming, which is run by the Scottish Agricultural College.[242] There are examples of good practice. For instance, the SAC is developing a distance learning package for organic farming and runs training days for farmers and others involved in the sector, such as seed merchants and vets.[243] In Wales the Organic Farming Centre is publicly funded by the National Assembly and has a remit to co-ordinate the dissemination of information including R&D, advice, training, education and demonstration farms.[244] Similarly, the Elm Farm Research Centre in England is to be commended. However, more needs to be done to bring these initiatives together to provide high quality training across the board. We recommend that the Minister actively encourage the development of organic training schemes within the English Rural Development Programme and promote the development of training schemes in the UK.

Government targets and strategy

89. The Prime Minister has said that Government plans envisage a trebling of the area under organic farming in the UK by 2006.[245] This would amount to around 6 per cent of agriculturally used land. There is, however, a concerted campaign to tie the Government to much more ambitious targets. The Organic Food and Farming Targets Bill, a Private Members Bill introduced in Session 1999-2000, aimed to ensure that 30 per cent of agricultural land will be organic by 2010 and that 20 per cent of the food consumed will be organic by that date.[246] It drew on the experience of other European countries which have set targets for the growth of their organic industries, such as Sweden, Austria, Denmark and Finland, although not all of the targets have been met.[247] The campaign behind the bill is steered by organic organisations and others and supported by a wide range of organisations, from supermarkets to statutory agencies, environmental groups and trade unions. Supporters argue that the advantage of setting targets linked to a long-term Government strategy would be to "help the sector develop smoothly" and "give the confidence to growers, farmers, retailers and investors that the organic sector is set on a course of growth".[248] Not all organic bodies are in favour, however, with the Organic Farmers and Growers Ltd telling us that it wanted no targets "whatsoever".[249]

90. The bill is unlikely to succeed at Westminster, although it will be taken up and re-presented to the House of Commons in the current Session. In any case, witnesses who supported the campaign generally agreed that the purpose of the bill was to raise awareness, rather than to prescribe an exact target.[250] A further purpose of the bill was to persuade the Government to adopt an Action Plan. It is pleasing that the Minister for Agriculture has now accepted this, following his recent speech at the Circencester conference of the Soil Association. The Soil Association recognised that the real need was "to plan for growth, to put in place the structures which we need to enable that growth to happen sensibly, for us to ensure that the market can be developed at the right rate as we develop the production base".[251] In written evidence, the Association argued that "the Government urgently needs to adopt a long-term strategy for the development of the organic sector".[252]

91. Mr Morley countered by arguing against a fixed strategy and in favour of flexibility.[253] He believed that while the Government did "have to try and look ahead and try and project trends, we really feel that, at the moment, the organic sector is being market driven by market demand, and we think that is quite right and proper".[254] This position could alter if premia for organic produce disappeared and the Government wished to retain the benefits it perceived organic farming as supplying.[255] We accept Mr Morley's point that the inclusion of organic farming within the ERDP gives some flexibility to respond to developments in the sector as far as the budget is concerned. We are not in favour of a dirigiste approach to agriculture in the UK. Agriculture must respond to the market-place and farmers need to adopt clear plans that will allow it to do so. This is particularly true of the organic sector. However, we believe that the Government has a role in analysing the organic supply chain for bottlenecks and imbalances and devising policy tools to help remedy these. There is merit in the Government setting out long-term projections of the money available for conversion and for assistance to address supply chain difficulties.

210  Ev. p. 131, para 4. Back

211  MAFF Research Strategy 2001-2005 Consultation Document, Chief Scientist's Group, August 2000, p. 67. Back

212  Ibid, p. 68. Back

213  Ibid, p. 67. Back

214  Ibid, p. 69. Back

215  Ibid, p. 69. Back

216  Ev. p. 134, para 27. Back

217  MAFF Research Strategy 2001-2005, Annex 2. Back

218  Ev. p. 103. Back

219  MAFF Research Strategy 2001-2005, p. 69. Back

220  Q 629. Back

221  IbidBack

222  Ev. pp. 228-34, annex 2; SA (2000), The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic FarmingBack

223  Ev. p. 164, para 10.2. Back

224  Ev. p. 187, para 27. Back

225  Q 532. Back

226  Q 214. Back

227  Ev. pp. 203-204, para 6; Ev. p. 245. Back

228  Ev. p. 215. Back

229  Ev. p. 184, para 5.  Back

230  Ev. p. 186, para 26. Back

231  e.g. Q 89. Back

232  Shades of Green: A review of UK farming systems, RASE, November 2000. Back

233  Ev. p. 187, para 36. Back

234  Q 269. Back

235  Ev. p. 134, para 26. Back

236  Ev. p. 134, para 28. Back

237  Q 596. Back

238  Q 694. Back

239  Q 261. Back

240  Ev. p. 21, para 31. Back

241  Q 265. Back

242  Q 53. Back

243  Q 53. Back

244  Ev. p. 21, para 33. Back

245  Speech to the NFU, 1 February 2000.  Back

246  Ev. p. 174, section 2 Back

247  Ev. pp. 175-6, section 4.4. Back

248  Ev. p. 174. Back

249  Q 544. Back

250  Q 469; Q 461; Q 545. Back

251  Q 545. Back

252  Ev. p. 103, section 7.1. Back

253  Q 600. Back

254  Q 600. Back

255  Q 597. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 24 January 2001