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".
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.
MAFF has also commissioned an organic research database and software
to assist advisors, the results of which were expected by the
end of 2000.
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.
87. Mr Morley was satisfied with the Government's
strategy for advice and training
but others felt that, while the quality of advice had improved,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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".
Not all organic bodies are in favour, however, with the Organic
Farmers and Growers Ltd telling us that it wanted no targets "whatsoever".
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.
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".
In written evidence, the Association argued that "the Government
urgently needs to adopt a long-term strategy for the development
of the organic sector".
91. Mr Morley countered by arguing against a fixed
strategy and in favour of flexibility.
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".
This position could alter if premia for organic produce disappeared
and the Government wished to retain the benefits it perceived
organic farming as supplying.
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
Research Strategy 2001-2005 Consultation Document, Chief Scientist's
Group, August 2000, p. 67. Back
p. 68. Back
p. 67. Back
p. 69. Back
p. 69. Back
p. 134, para 27. Back
Research Strategy 2001-2005, Annex 2. Back
p. 103. Back
Research Strategy 2001-2005, p. 69. Back
221 Ibid. Back
pp. 228-34, annex 2; SA (2000), The Biodiversity Benefits of
Organic Farming. Back
p. 164, para 10.2. Back
p. 187, para 27. Back
pp. 203-204, para 6; Ev. p. 245. Back
p. 215. Back
p. 184, para 5. Back
p. 186, para 26. Back
Q 89. Back
of Green: A review of UK farming systems,
RASE, November 2000. Back
p. 187, para 36. Back
p. 134, para 26. Back
p. 134, para 28. Back
p. 21, para 31. Back
p. 21, para 33. Back
to the NFU, 1 February 2000. Back
p. 174, section 2 Back
pp. 175-6, section 4.4. Back
p. 174. Back
469; Q 461; Q 545. Back
p. 103, section 7.1. Back