Select Committee on Agriculture Second Report



4. Organic farming is one of the few bright spots in the depressed picture of UK agriculture. The number of producers expressing interest in conversion has grown exponentially over the last few years in response to the strong consumer demand for organic products. The speed at which this market has developed has resulted in many sectors in a huge gap between demand and the ability of the UK industry to supply, with the happy consequence for organic farmers of stable prices above those achievable for conventional supplies and the less welcome consequence for the UK's balance of trade of a reliance on imports. Traditionally, organic farms have been seen as small family-run enterprises and indeed many such farms do still exist. However, within the organic sector, there are also farms on a scale similar to those found in conventional farming and it is possible that more will be established in order to satisfy the level of demand. It is important to recognise that generalisations about organic farming are meaningless and that the sharp distinction often made between organic and conventional production is far less clear in reality. For example, it is as possible to have an intensively farmed organic business as it is to have an extensively farmed conventional one. Similarly, conventional farmers may adopt practices associated with organic farming without seeking a change in status, and very interesting results have been achieved through integrated crop management which combines beneficial natural processes with modern farming techniques. Conventional and organic farming are not two wholly distinct activities and practitioners in either sector may have more in common than they have at variance. Some farmers will produce in both markets to maximise returns and to diversify their interests. In this Report, we are concerned not with the promotion of organic farming as a public good in itself but with finding answers to a technical problem - how to increase UK production to meet an existing demand - and with the question of appropriate Government support for organic farming.

Reality v. perception

5. The term "organic" refers to a process, not the final product. The entitlement to label vegetables, meat or any other foodstuff as organic depends upon the way in which it was produced and the procedures involved in processing, rather than any intrinsic, testable quality in the food itself. Many claims have been made for organically produced foods, ranging from food quality, food safety, animal welfare, support for rural communities and fair trade, and benefits for the environment. We have seen no evidence to enable us to state unequivocally that any of these claims 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. Indeed, the organic movement itself, in general, is careful not to assert such claims as provable. Doubts have been raised, for example, on aspects of animal welfare, and the spectacle of green beans flown in from Kenya with high energy consumption is contrary to the organic ideal of locally grown, seasonal produce. We recognise that, of the claims made, by far the strongest case is that organic farming is environmentally more beneficial than conventional farming, although even here some organic practices, such as the use of the highly toxic copper sulphate (to be phased out shortly), synthetic pyrethroid sheep dips or the killing of weeds by flame, are less environmentally-friendly than the equivalent conventional practices. It is a common perception that organic means pesticide- and chemical-free but in fact it simply means farming without artificial pesticides: those produced from natural chemicals may be used. In the same way, there is a significant list of non-organic processing aids which may be used in manufacturing organic products and a tolerance level of five per cent non-organic ingredients in processed products labelled as organic.

6. This is not to accuse the organic movement of misleading the public but it is perhaps true that the public has a perception of organic farming that is, at least partly, mythical. We believe it important that the claims can be tested and verified in order that consumers know what they are really buying. The statement from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in August 2000 that it "considers that there is not enough information available at present to be able to say that organic foods are significantly different in terms of their safety and nutritional content to those produced by conventional farming" raised a furore, but illustrates the limits of claims which can be scientifically sustained.[2] Research to sustain or quantify the claimed benefits of organic farming is badly needed. However, it is clearly the case that some consumers in the UK wish to buy organic products and, whatever their reason for doing so, be it some dream of the perfect English countryside or fears over food safety, they have the right to do so as long as those products meet all legal safety standards.

The Lords Report

7. In July 1999, a year before our own inquiry began, the Select Committee on the European Communities of the House of Lords reported on Organic Farming and the European Union.[3] The report was impressive, covering all the main questions on organic farming, including discussion of its philosophy and principles. We have read the analysis and conclusions of their Lordships and have felt excused from examining certain areas in order to avoid duplication. But the year between the end of their inquiry and the beginning of ours has seen the organic market continue its phenomenal growth (made all the more striking by the continued fall in conventional prices); it has seen the implementation of European-wide livestock regulations in August 2000, closing one of the gaps in the standardisation of organic practice; finally, it has also seen the opening - and premature closure to new applicants - of the Government's organic farming scheme and the announcement of additional new funds for organic conversion through the Rural Development Regulation. These factors justify a new look at the sector.

Conduct of inquiry

8. We announced our inquiry in a press notice issued on 5 May 2000, calling for evidence on:

In response, we received over 70 memoranda, a high total which reflects the extent to which this subject has caught the public attention. In addition, we held five oral evidence sessions, hearing from Professor Sir John Marsh CBE, Professor William McKelvey of the Scottish Agricultural College, Dr Nicolas Lampkin of the Organic Farming Centre for Wales, the National Farmers' Union of England and Wales, three organic farmers (Mr Nick Bradley, Mrs Joanna Comley and Mr Oliver Watson), Yeo Valley Organic Company Limited, Congelow Produce Ltd, J Sainsbury plc, Iceland Frozen Foods plc, the Soil Association, Organic Farmers and Growers Ltd, the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) and Mr Elliot Morley MP, Minister for Fisheries and the Countryside, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). These witnesses covered the whole spectrum from science through producers and processors to the supermarkets, together with those responsible for certification, regulation and finally Government policy. We wish to thank all who gave evidence, either orally or in writing. We also ventured beyond Westminster, despite the best efforts of the railways to stop us, to visit two high profile and successful organic farms, one run by Helen Browning at Bishopstone in Wiltshire and the other by the Prince of Wales at Highgrove in Gloucestershire. In October we spent a day in Leicestershire, visiting the CWS farm at Stoughton, where organic, conventional and "integrated" farming methods are operated side-by-side, and two much smaller farms at Long Whatton and Normanton on Soar. We are extremely grateful to those whom we met during these visits for their frankness and for the many lessons we learnt about the practicalities of organic farming. This is the end.

9. Our specialist advisers for this inquiry were Professor Sir Colin Spedding, former chairman of UKROFS, who generously reprised his role as adviser to the Lords Committee on organic farming, and Professor Michael Haines of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. We hereby express our appreciation of their assistance and guidance throughout the inquiry.

Structure of Report

10. The Report is structured as follows. Section II examines the expansion of organic farming and of the demand for organically produced food in the UK. Section III looks more closely at the supply chain and the role of supermarkets and producer-owned co-operatives. Section IV looks at the system for certifying organic products and for setting standards and considers possible improvements to that process. Section V and Section VI cover the role of Government in supporting organic farming, first through direct financial assistance and second through other, indirect means such as research and development or training. Finally, Section VII sets out our main conclusions and recommendations.

2  FSA Position Paper: Food Standards Agency View on Organic Foods, August 2000. Back

3  16th Report of the Select Committee on the European Communities, Session 1998-99, HL Paper 93. Back

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