Organic sector calls for more recognition with bonus plan

ORGANIC farmers are pressing for a Common Agricultural Policy which would reward them at the expense of mainstream food production.

The strategy was revealed at the Soil Association’s conference in Manchester, where the association published a report, The Lazy Man Of Europe, saying the UK was doing less than almost every competitor to encourage organic methods.

The report, and conference delegates, argued they should be paid for using less resources, causing less pollution and delivering better animal welfare. And the best way was to offer a bonus for organic methods in farm support grants – an option being discussed under the title ‘the greening of Pillar One’. At the moment, most support for environmental benefits comes through Pillar Two spending – general rural support – which is optional and requires matching of EU funding from home taxation.

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Delegates were told that even if the UK did not support the idea, other countries, like Germany, would be sympathetic.

NFU president Peter Kendall attended a side meeting to the main conference, where CAP reform was being discussed, to tackle the argument.

He said a two-tier formula would give other states the excuse to continue back-door subsidies. He also said the economics of sustainability were so complicated it was far from certain that organic methods were superior. It could easily be argued that GM crops and intensive meat production cost less in terms of carbon emissions.

But the delegates were sure they were delivering benefits which market economics failed to pay for. As one expressed it: “Bees do not present you with an invoice.”

Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State at Defra, sent a message by video for the opening of the conference. She said “the most urgent question” was how to feed a growing world population at the same time as tackling climate change – and organic farming was a part of the answer but not the whole answer.

Mrs Spelman’s hurried speech got a cool reception. But it was seen as significant that she echoed her deputy, farming minister James Paice, by saying: “Organic farms are pioneers of sustainable farming, with lessons for us all.”

One theme of the conference was the waste involved in feeding grain to animals. If dietary habits changed, according to the delegates, the world could be fed by organic growing.

But even supporters of that idea agreed there was a lot of work to do. Jan Hutchinson, director of public health for Bolton, said an exercise in introducing children to healthy eating had made her aware of children who did not know any vegetables other than peas.

She said: “I would not have believed it if I had not seen it myself ... What is this? A carrot. What does it taste like? They had never tasted a raw carrot.”

She said many parents did not know how to cook and saw books by celebrity chefs as “coffee table books”. But education in food and cooking was under threat from spending cuts.

Mr Kendall spoke of his annoyance at Caroline Spelman saying it was obvious Pillar One support for farms would be cut. Referring again to the “market failure” of milk prices, he said: “What made me cross was that she talked about getting rid of Pillar One payments but did not say what we need to do to make farming profitable without them.”