Select Committee on Agriculture Fifth Special Report


The Agriculture Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—

The Committee has received the following memorandum from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, constituting the Government's Reply to the Second Report from the Committee of the 2000-01 Session, Organic Farming, made to the House on 17 January 2001.

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These are difficult and challenging times for farming. The way in which we produce our food is now a major focus of public debate. People are increasingly looking at alternatives to the intensive farming methods that have been a feature of British agriculture in recent decades. Organic farming is one - but only one - such alternative. It cannot satisfy our needs in isolation, but it has an important contribution to make.

Against this background, the Government welcomes the Agriculture Committee's Report as an important contribution to a multi­faceted debate. Many of the issues raised in the Report are directly relevant to the increasingly inclusive discussion about future public policy towards organic farming, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the European Union. The Government intends to make a distinctive contribution to this debate. Suggestions have included changes to the form of taxpayer support for organic farming and the preparation of a national plan for the development of organic farming in England. The Committee's Report will help the Government develop its thinking on such ideas, some of which are of direct concern to the mid­term evaluation of the England Rural Development Programme, due for completion in 2003.

In the Foreword to its Report, the Committee identified a number of themes for particular attention.

First, the Committee noted the need for the expansion of the organic sector to be sustainable and proposed the development of partnerships which will benefit all those in the supply chain for organic produce. The Government agrees with these sentiments and notes particularly the Committee's view that there is a strong case for caution over the extent to which Government support helps expand the rate at which land is brought into organic farming. It is the market that will be the principal determinant.

Second, the Committee drew attention to consumer demand for organic produce and the perceptions which some consumers have of the benefits which organic production methods provide. The Committee calls for more work to be done to establish a scientific basis on which claims made for organic produce can be founded. The Government agrees entirely that consumers must be given sound information on which to base judgments about what they buy. And the Government is addressing through its R&D programme the need to conduct R&D on certain aspects of organic production, such as more effective organic production methods and environmental issues. However, there is no consensus that organic standards can be entirely science based since they are grounded in a system with philosophical roots.

Third, the Committee asks for organic and conventional agriculture to be seen as interdependent. The Government strongly supports the view that the agricultural sector needs to be seen in the round and that each part of it contributes to diversity of practice and to consumer choice.

Different arrangements for the support of organic farming apply in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and this response reflects the position in England. Organic standards are set for the United Kingdom as a whole.

Specific Recommendations

The recommendations in italics refer to Part VI of the Committee's Report and are referred to by number.

Claims Made for Organics

1. We have seen no evidence to enable us to state unequivocally that any of the many claims made for organics are always and invariably true. All claims need to be properly evaluated in order to help consumers make their own judgements on the benefits of organic produce (paragraph 5).

2. We believe it important that the claims can be tested and verified in order that consumers know what they are really buying (paragraph 6).

The Government agrees that consumers should be able to make an informed choice about the products that they buy. It is important that the meaning of the term "organic" is well understood, and the Government looks to producers and retailers to work to this end. The legal framework helps, since it is illegal in some circumstances to market individual organic products on the basis that the product is safer, of better nutritional quality or tastes better than conventionally produced products.

Market for Organics

3. It is clear that there is a huge opportunity for UK producers to expand still further into organic farming to meet a ready market (paragraph 22).

The Government agrees. With around 70% of the UK market for organic produce being supplied by imports, there is considerable opportunity for import substitution by increasing domestic production. But there is a need at the same time to avoid oversupply and the consequent effect on market premia for organic produce. Prices of organic produce available for export to the UK will also have an impact on the domestic premia.

4. It is vital that the organic industry develops its ability to market its products effectively so that they appeal not to sentiment but to proven benefits. The industry may need to be less messianic and more marketing­orientated in its public presentations (paragraph 32).

The Government agrees with the Committee's view that to be viable the organic sector must market its products effectively. As subsequent sections of the Report make clear, there are ample opportunities.

Local Marketing Schemes

5. We recommend that the Government encourage the further development of local marketing schemes, such as farmers' markets and box schemes, through the provision of advice and ERDP funding (paragraph 33).

The Government welcomes the development of local marketing schemes. It has actively supported the farmers' market movement, encouraging the establishment of the National Association of Farmers Markets and grant aiding certain of its activities. As well as helping to launch the Association, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made a point of visiting a number of farmers' markets in England. He has also written to local authority leaders to draw their attention to the potential benefits that such markets can bring. The Countryside Agency is also seeking to encourage the development of farmers' markets and other local food marketing initiatives as part of their "Eat the View" initiative.

Funding is available under the England Rural Development Programme's Rural Enterprise Scheme through the 'marketing of quality agricultural products' measure which can assist in the development and marketing of organic products. Funding is also available to help establish new farmers' markets. Good quality projects from individual farmers, groups of farmers, rural businesses and rural communities are welcome. As the Rural Enterprise Scheme is a competitive scheme delivered on a regional basis, projects should reflect regional objectives and priorities as set out in the Programme.

Supermarkets and Organics

6. Supermarkets will be the main, although not the only, distribution channel for organic produce. It is critical that they are involved in the design of and encouraged to co­fund future initiatives to further organic conversion (paragraph 37).

The Government accepts that the multiples will continue to be the principal channel through which organic produce is marketed. It follows that they will need to be closely involved in the future development of organic production. The buying power of the multiples means that they can play a major role in encouraging the conversion of land to organic farming. The Government agrees that they should be involved in the design and, where possible, the delivery of any future initiatives to encourage organic conversion, although the legal framework within which rural development measures operate places constraints on co­financing between government and non­government sources.

However, there is no reason why the multiples should not continue to put their own schemes in place. The Government will seek to encourage them to do so and ensure that such initiatives fit well with Government support.

Supplier Partnerships

7. We recommend that the Government work with the bodies responsible for the promotion of organic production to ensure that rural development funds are channelled into the development of supplier partnerships and farmer­controlled co­operatives in the organic sector (paragraph 38).

The Government agrees that the further development of supplier partnerships, and the increased scale and access to professional technical and marketing expertise that can be provided by farmer­controlled businesses, would be of considerable benefit to organic producers. The significant new capital and non­capital funding now available under the England Rural Development Programme can play an important role in pump­priming such initiatives. Indeed improved marketing, and increased levels of co­operation and collaboration between primary producers and amongst all players in the supply chain, are priorities for support under the Programme. The Government hopes that suitable proposals will come forward from the organic sector, and that these are able to receive support. MAFF and its partner organisations will continue to promote awareness of the ERDP schemes and understanding of what they can offer, including promoting them directly to the organic sector. MAFF and the NFU have in train a joint initiative to promote interest in collaborative marketing and a programme of activity for 2001/02 is in development.


8. We welcome the additional aid for small and medium sized abattoirs announced in the Rural White Paper and await with interest details of the package and we urge the Government to stimulate the development of new small abattoirs, including mobile abattoirs (paragraph 40).

The Government notes the Committee's welcome for additional aid for small and medium sized abattoirs now being taken forward by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which is responsible for implementing European and domestic legislation on meat hygiene, including charges and other related matters. As the Committee will recall, the Government accepted the conclusions of the task force established last year by the FSA under the independent chairmanship of Colin Maclean in respect of the basis for charging for meat inspections. As a result the Government will be providing around £19 million per annum towards the cost of meat inspection in Great Britain. The FSA is now working towards implementing the new charging system which is expected to come into force on 2 April 2001.

The Government understands the importance of local slaughtering facilities and also recognises the significance of small and medium sized and specialist abattoirs to the rural economy. The Government understands too the reason for interest in the potential role of mobile abattoirs for organic livestock. The Committee may be interested to know that last year, under the Agricultural Development Scheme, we supported a study of the feasibility of operating a mobile slaughter unit in central southern England. The study was completed in October last year and the company concerned is now considering whether to progress further.

Certification Bodies

9. The multiplicity of bodies with their different standards and symbols is a significant weakness and we believe that the certification bodies should be encouraged by the Government in their efforts at closer co­operation, which may lead ultimately to mergers (paragraph 46).

The Government understands the Committee's arguments. Creating confusion for consumers is not in the public interest. Opinion within the organic movement on whether there are too many certification bodies is divided. Some agree with the Committee. Others argue that the present arrangements permit a wider range of producers to enter the sector than might be the case if just one set of standards was in place; and that the existence of several bodies more readily permits standards development by enabling standards above the legal norm to be piloted. The Government has encouraged close co­ordination between the certification bodies. The current review of UKROFS is likely to impact on this issue, and the Government will consider the results of the Review in due course, taking into account the Committee's own recommendation.

Farm Assurance Schemes and Organic Certification

10. We recommend that MAFF facilitate discussions between the farm assurance schemes and the organic certification sector with a view to ensuring agreement on common core values and inspection protocols and with the goal of a single inspection process and shared symbols (paragraph 48).

The Government agrees that there would be benefit in looking at the scope for co­ordination and co­operation between assurance schemes and organic certification bodies, though these are primarily matters for the industry itself. As the Committee notes, there have already been some helpful moves in this direction. The Government has welcomed the establishment of Assured Food Standards and its proposed development of an integrated and common framework within which existing assurance schemes can work; and it will encourage Assured Food Standards, the existing assurance schemes and the organic certification bodies to build on the contacts that have taken place with a view to closer co­operation and integration wherever possible.

In the short term the priority must be to ensure that Assured Food Standards is firmly established. It will be important to guard against confusion in the mind of the consumer between organic produce and that produced under Assured Food Standards and consequent dilution of market impact for both.

European Regulation on Organic Production

11. We recommend that the Government ensure that the European Commission reports regularly on the implementation of the regulation and actively encourage the European Parliament to monitor this implementation. The Government should produce a "Non Paper" for distribution at the Agriculture Council to further this end (paragraph 52).

12. We further recommend that MAFF be pro­active in drafting EU regulations and ensuring their scientific validity before they are written into law. MAFF should also, either directly or through UKROFS or the FSA, seek to monitor the effect of regulations to ensure that other public policy objectives are not compromised (paragraph 52).

The Government agrees that there is benefit in having well­focussed information about practices in other Member States, though resource constraints will mean that comprehensive information is not always achievable. The Commission will also have its own view of where its limited resources can most effectively be deployed. The Government will bear in mind the Committee's proposal for action within the Agriculture Council: finding the right opportunity will be important.

The Government notes that MAFF already plays a full role in the Commission's working groups through which Community organic standards are developed. In doing so, officials aim to take full account of the wishes and interests of the UK organic industry as expressed in responses to consultation. However, there is no consensus that organic standards should be based purely on scientific criteria, since they take account of traditional agricultural practice as well as a philosophical approach to what is correct agricultural practice.

Organic Production Standards in Third Countries

13. Unless these discrepancies are removed, there is a real danger that confidence in organic food may be damaged (paragraph 53).

14. We believe that IFOAM accreditation has much to offer in gaining acceptance for the standards met by imports from third countries and that the Government should support its widespread adoption (paragraph 56).

The Government recognises that clear standards rigorously applied are the basis of consumer confidence in organic food. Consumers need to be assured that produce imported from third countries meets standards equivalent to those with which EU producers are required to comply. This is provided for in Community legislation which obliges Member States to ensure that imports of third country produce are produced to standards equivalent to Community standards.

A number of witnesses who appeared before the Committee pointed to the advantages of universally accepted organic standards. The Government understands that view. These witnesses pointed to IFOAM standards as the basis for such a system. It should be noted though that IFOAM is a private sector body with relatively limited coverage in terms of the inspection bodies affiliated to it. Equally, the standards to which it operates are not universally accepted.

Setting Standards

15. We recommend that the Government endorse the involvement of the certification bodies in setting standards, with UKROFS acting as a check and balance in the system, and that the Government provide sufficient funding to ensure the rigour of standard­setting procedures (paragraph 56).

The Government endorses the involvement of the certification bodies in considering how best to implement and develop organic standards and UKROFS works on this principle. For example, UKROFS consulted the certification bodies on the implementation of Community standards for the production of organic livestock and livestock products. Consideration of the most effective resourcing of this practice will flow from the review of UKROFS currently taking place.

EU Livestock Standards

16. It is notable that UKROFS' assurances on the suitability of the EU livestock rules for the UK and their potential impact upon animal health and welfare were qualified in both cases. This is unsatisfactory (paragraph 58).

17. We find UKROFS' arrangements for monitoring the effect of the standards unsatisfactory and we are concerned by the lack of resources within UKROFS to conduct the necessary research into either animal welfare or the competitiveness impact of the regulations. We recommend that the Government ensure that the impact of the EU livestock regulations upon animal welfare and upon the competitiveness of the UK industry be monitored over the next decade with a view to recommending changes if necessary (paragraph 60).

The Government understands the Committee's concern about the Community organic livestock regulations and their implementation in the United Kingdom. Ministers have received similar representations. In developing UK livestock standards UKROFS has sought to strike a balance between the need to maintain the integrity of organic principles on the one hand and, on the other, the importance of ensuring good animal health and welfare and of avoiding damage to the competitiveness of domestic producers. This is not an easy task, and the UKROFS Board remains in discussion with the industry about a number of aspects of the livestock standards. The Government will formally draw the Board's attention to the Committee's comments.

Although it is primarily for the Board of UKROFS to explain their position, the Government has the following specific observations at this stage:

  • On animal health and welfare, it is an overriding principle of organic standards that any treatment necessary to prevent an animal suffering should be administered, including the use of allopathic veterinary medicines.

  • The Board of UKROFS agreed last year to review the impact of the new livestock standards within 12 months of their introduction, that is by August 2001.

  • The lack of resources within UKROFS to assess the competitiveness and animal welfare impacts of their standards is an issue which will need to be addressed following the UKROFS review. This will include the issue of the extent to which such work should be carried out in­house, taking full account of the availability of evidence from academic and industry sources and of financial support by MAFF, for example through the R&D programme and the State Veterinary Service's programme of animal welfare surveillance.

Competitiveness and Standards

18. We recommend that UKROFS be charged to take into account the competitiveness implications of any proposed regulations and to publish the results of its analysis before agreeing on any changes to organic standards (paragraph 60).

The Government fully sympathises with the underlying aim of this recommendation. Regulatory bodies should make as full an assessment as possible of the impact of their proposals before confirming them and should share this assessment with consultees and the wider public. The Government will discuss with the Board of UKROFS whether further analytical work is desirable and feasible, though this will sensibly await the outcome of the UKROFS review.

It is worth noting that most changes to organic standards are settled at the EU level, and thus neither the Government nor UKROFS has absolute control over the outcome.

Processing Standards

19. We recommend that the Government work in the Council of Ministers to present the Commission with a deadline by which to develop new standards for organic processing (paragraph 62).

The Government agrees that this is an area on which further work is needed and has made the Commission aware of its view. However, Council Regulation 2092/91 already imposes on the Commission a legal obligation to carry out a considerable programme of work on other issues, which - so the Government understands - leaves it with insufficient capacity to take on work necessary to develop processing standards.


20. The present Chairman of UKROFS admitted that when he took up his post he was "appalled at the level of resourcing and the pressure which was put both on the civil service secretariat and upon the board members of UKROFS by the sheer size of the workload". This will have to be resolved (paragraph 64).

21. We accept that at the moment UKROFS is not getting the support it needs from MAFF in terms of staff or funding. Nevertheless, we believe that there is scope for a complete reconsideration of its role. There is room for it to acquire a higher profile, as was hinted at by the current Chairman's intervention in the GM debate, and to perform a valuable role as the regulator between the certification bodies and the Government, but it is clearly not fulfilling that potential at the moment. We await the results of the review with great interest (paragraph 65).

As the Committee notes a review of UKROFS is currently being carried out, and this will address the concerns expressed in the Report.

Organic Farming Scheme

22. Given that there is a programme, we believe that the disruption in the provision of aid for organic farming at this crucial time has been highly regrettable. The Government should seek to ensure that the OFS is administered to provide even funding and applications across the whole year (paragraph 69).

The Government will seek to achieve an orderly flow of funding for the Organic Farming Scheme over the life of the England Rural Development Programme. Interest shown in the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) when it opened in April 1999 was far greater than could have been anticipated, not least because of the general downturn in the prospects of the agriculture sector since it was first designed. In the event, despite the allocation of additional resources, it proved impossible to meet applications from all those seeking conversion aid. Indications from the 2001 OFS, which opened on 2 January this year, are that demand has slowed and the scheme remains open to applications.

The Private Sector and Organic Subsidies

23. The Government should discuss the design of its subsidy regime with retailers, processors and the water industry. It should encourage OFWAT to review whether water companies should be obliged to offer top­up payments (paragraph 70).

The Government recognises the benefits that organic farming provides in terms of the non­use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. It agrees with the Committee that others outside the farming industry, including retailers, processors and the water industry, have valid interests and valuable experience in encouraging organic farming. It will therefore ensure that the design of the financial assistance regime is discussed with all stakeholders involved in the next review of conversion aid to be undertaken for the mid term evaluation of the England Rural Development Programme, as was the case in the 1999 Review.

Diffuse sources of pollution, including that from the inappropriate use, mis­use or run­off from agricultural pesticides and fertilisers, can increase the cost of purifying drinking water. The regulatory regime provides an incentive for water companies to adopt the most cost­effective way of delivering clean water to their customers. In some cases, there will be scope for innovative approaches to cutting treatment costs by reducing diffuse pollution. This could include supporting farmers who wish to go organic, and the Government very much welcomes the efforts of those water companies who have chosen to do this.

Objectives of Government Assistance for Organic Farming

24. Before determining how best to offer financial assistance to organic producers, it is essential that the Government be clear as to the rationale for doing so and the objectives it wishes to achieve through this expenditure. These objectives must be tightly defined and made public (paragraph 71).

25. We believe that the benefits to be secured by organic farming need to be far more closely defined so that the Government can set measurable and achievable objectives for its financial assistance to organic farming (paragraph 75).

The Government welcomes the Committee's insistence that the benefits that can accrue through organic farming should be clearly defined. As the Report notes, there is a range of potential benefits, but not all of these either require or are suitable for public funding. Where public funding is currently provided, that is for the environmental benefits secured by organic farming, the rationale for such support is set out in the England Rural Development Programme. The Programme includes quantified plans for the amount of land to be converted and details of the expenditure deployed to achieve these goals. The Committee's recommendation is of course highly relevant to the current debate about the future direction of organic farming referred to in the introduction to this response.

The 2003 Review

26. We recommend that in advance of the review the Government commission research into the cost of conversion in different sectors in order that its consideration of differential payments be properly informed (paragraph 76).

27. The targeting of aid at sectors which are lagging behind the general trend towards organic conversion should be included in the options for consideration, if the current trend continues (paragraph 76).

Uptake of conversion aid should be governed by producers' business judgements. Previous reviews of aid for organic conversion have acknowledged the need for higher rates of support for horticulture. Given the general under­development across the entire sector, it was decided to target support at the largest possible number of potential farmers with the aim of maximising environmental benefits. The rates of payment offered under the Organic Farming Scheme reflect real costs of a wide range of farm types and are reviewed from time to time. The Government will reconsider the levels of support in the mid term evaluation of the England Rural Development Programme. Meanwhile the Committee's recommendation will be taken into account in the forthcoming review of the MAFF­funded organic R&D programme.

28. We recommend that applicants to any organic subsidy scheme be required to produce a business plan which is accompanied by a statement as to its validity from a qualified adviser, such as a bank, accountant, consultancy or agricultural organisation (paragraph 78).

As the Committee has acknowledged, the question of each application to the Organic Farming Scheme being accompanied by a business plan was considered and rejected in the recent Scheme Review. The concept will be considered again in the mid­term evaluation of the England Rural Development Programme.

29. We recommend that, whatever scheme is devised, it be flexible, locally­run and as un-bureaucratic as possible (paragraph 78).

We note the Committee's comments.

30. We recommend that the Government devise proposals for an organic stewardship scheme as the centrepiece of its review of organic farming support in 2003, taking into account the need for clearly defined goals and for flexibility, simplicity and predictability. These proposals should be accompanied by a statement of objectives and plans for the achievement of those objectives, including the resources to be allocated to their achievement (paragraph 78).

The Government will consider whether a scheme such as that recommended by the Committee might be developed. Any proposals will need to be drawn up in consultation with stakeholders.

Research and Development

31. 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 (paragraph 82).

MAFF has recently established a new Science Committee which is charged with determining priorities and the allocation of available science and R&D funds. The Science Committee will give serious consideration to the Committee's recommendation, though resources will always be a constraint.

32. We believe that there are three reasons why research into the claims made for organic farming 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 (paragraph 84).

The Government agrees that it is necessary for policy to be soundly based on evidence. Considerable work has been carried out to compare different farming systems, and the Government encourages further such studies. Research on organic techniques is already included in the MAFF R&D programme.

33. 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 (paragraph 84).

MAFF has an existing programme of research on organic farming which includes work on environmental implications, technical issues, and on animal welfare. It is expected that continuing and further research will be funded in those areas. Some of the information from this research will relate to public policy issues. The Food Standards Agency has produced a position paper on the food safety and nutrition aspects of organic food. The paper indicated the need for further work in some areas, which is being taken forward within the Agency's current research and surveillance programme.

34. 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 (paragraph 85).

The Government strongly supports this view. A large part of MAFF's research programme is relevant to organic farming, including research on biological control, pest and disease forecasting, animal health and welfare, farm waste management, plant nutrition and conservation. A number of projects are funded specifically to translate results from conventional research into the organic context. Conversely, as more experience is gained about organic systems, it should be possible to translate that information into a form that is applicable in conventional agriculture. An early example of this may be improvements in planning crop rotations.

Advice and Training

35. 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 (paragraph 87).

The Government is considering the conclusions of an independent review of free advice, including the advice to farmers available from the Organic Conversion Information Service, and will take the Committee's recommendation into account in that process.

36. 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 (paragraph 88).

Funding for training is available under the Vocational Training Scheme (VTS) which forms part of the ERDP. The VTS meets up to 75% of eligible costs in relation to training for farmers and foresters. Training should contribute to an improvement in the occupational skill and competence of farmers and others involved in farming and forestry activities and their conversion. The scheme will fund training under 10 broad categories which cover most activities of interest to farmers. Organic farmers or those wishing to go organic are eligible to apply for funding and should be encouraged to do so.

Government Targets and Strategy

37. 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 market­place 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 (paragraph 91).

The Government agrees with the Committee's overall perspective. The option of drawing up a national action plan, in which Ministers have expressed clear interest, offers a vehicle for the sort of analysis proposed by the Committee. In addition, MAFF will shortly be commissioning an independent evaluation of the Organic Farming Scheme. In addition to considering the rationale and objectives of the scheme,this will provide evidence of its efficiency and effectiveness and identify areas where further policy changes may be desirable to meet the objectives.

Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

April 2001

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