Memorandum submitted by the Countryside
Agency (F 13)
Thank you for inviting the Countryside Agency
to submit evidence to this Inquiry. Our interest's centre around
the environmental, social and economic benefits which can accrue
to the English countryside through an expansion in the national
area of land farmed organically.
For many years the emphasis has been on encouraging
volume production of primary commodities, sold through bulk contracts,
and increasingly competing at world primary product prices. To
be efficient in this regime, farmers have been encouraged to cut
production costs, reduce labour, upgrade capital equipment, and
reduce diversity. Consequently pesticide and herbicide use has
increased in both livestock and arable production, but the environmental
impact of monoculture has not been costed.
Organic farming tends to bring producers and
consumers into closer contact and its very methods and standards
depend on diversity. Producers look to off-setting the higher
costs of production by shortening the supply chain, reducing the
numbers of "middle men", and having close dialogue with
consumers so that they can react to demand and quality expectations.
An off-shoot of commercial agribusiness has
been the progressive loss of farming related infrastructure, from
abattoirs to creameries, mechanics to specialist millers. It has
been reflected in the loss of local skills, and the draining away
to the towns of people with those skills. Skills' training was
centralised under the TEC system in rural areas, which has further
exacerbated this trend. Organic farmers tend to be multi-skilled,
and keen to pass on those skills to build up a network of like-minded
producers and conservationists.
A programme for revitalising rural communities,
providing opportunities for younger people, supporting the older
remaining in the community, increasing the volume of locally produced
food, reducing the number of "food miles", and encouraging
more sustainable tourism, are all elements which would benefit
from support for more organic farming.
Research sponsored by the Countryside Commission
("Effects of Organic Farming on the Landscape", 1998)
concluded that "farmers who choose organic methods provide
net benefits to the landscape largely because of their general
awareness of the environment". There are also biodiversity
benefits, including increases in the quantity and diversity of
flora in arable crops and temporary grassland as a result of lower
inputs and "weed tolerance", retention of semi-natural
habitats such as species-rich pastures, and improved habitat conditions
for birds and invertebrates.
Organic farming's expansion also has identifiable
benefits for employment creation, eg a 1997 study of 47 farms
which had converted to organic status ("Double Yield: Jobs
& Sustainable Food Production", SAFE Alliance) showed
the following increases in jobs:
|Employees||No before conversion
||No after conversion
|Permanent full time (paid)||26
|Permanent part time (paid)||7
The increased use of labour in organic systems has as much
to do with the new kinds of on-farm activities such as processing
and direct sales, as the actual farm work itself. Additionally,
the extra returns provided by price premiums on organic food help
to maintain these positive employment impacts.
Organic farming is subject to official and obligatory standards
relating to pesticides, antibiotics, animal husbandry, environmental
practices etc. set down and monitored by UKROFS (the United Kingdom
Register of Organic Food Standards), but there are two problems.
Firstly, there is some anecdotal evidence that, in terms of its
staffing, UKROFS is under-resourced, a situation which could,
and should, be remedied by MAFF. Secondly, in addition to UKROFS
there are five other approved sector bodies (Soil Association,
Bio-Dynamic Agricultural Association, Organic Farmers and Growers,
Organic Food Federation, and Scottish Organic Producers Association).
Whilst there may be understandable historic reasons for this fragmentation,
it is not commensurate with an efficient, 21st century, organic
sector, and amalgamations should be encouraged.
Last year the Soil Association undertook a thorough review
of conservation standards, and the Agency endorsed its subsequent
report: "The Organic Farming Environment: An assessment of
the Agronomic Impact, Biodiversity, and Landscape Benefits of
Enhanced Conservation standards". There is an important incidental
point relating to the two year minimum period stipulated for the
conversion of farmland from conventional to organic status. This
should not be reduced to one year, as is the case in some EC countries
whose governments apply lower standards to their organic sectors.
The uptake of organic farming has been actively encouraged
by the Government, through conventional farmers being given hectarage
conversion payments, initially through the OAS (Organic Aid Scheme),
and subsequently through the higher rates offered under the OFS
(Organic Farming Scheme). More than 700 farmers have been accepted
into OFS, and over £16m of aid was allocated to this sector
in the first half of 1999-2000. However, given that the bulk of
organic food on sale in the UK is imported (see below), there
is a strong case for the Government to increase the funds for
OFS still further, and the Agency has said publicly that it would
like to see the budget trebled.
Although UK organic farming has undergone considerable expansion
in the last five years or so, it currently forms only about three
per cent of agricultural land. Evidence of the scope for further
growth lies in the fact that demand for organic food exceeds supply.
We are keen for the expansion in organic farming to continue,
as it can be a "sensitive manager" of much of the farmed
countryside, with an emphasis on the commonplace, not just the
special. It can conserve and re-introduce traditional landscape
features, meet environmental and recreational objectives, and
contribute markedly to strengthening and diversifying the economy
of rural areas.
The UK's overall demand for organic produce is increasing
faster (40 per cent a year) than supply (25 per cent a year).
This supply "shortfall" is largely being met by imports,
which constitute about 70 per cent of the UK's current sales of
organic produce (Soil Association: "Organic Food And Farming
Report 1999"). This suggests there are considerable opportunities
for import substitution.
With the exceptions of the UK, France and Greece, the organic
farming support schemes operated by all EC countries include maintenance
payments for existing organic farmers, ie additional to the payments
for conventional farmers converting to organic. The fact that
UK organic farmers are not on a "level EC playing field",
and the high level of UK imports (see above) may not be unconnected.
12 June 2000