Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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:


No before conversion
No after conversion
Percentage increase
Family/owner (unpaid)
Permanent full time (paid)
Permanent part time (paid)

  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

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