Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 23

Memorandum submitted by the Council for the Protection of Rural England (F 32)

  1.  CPRE is a national charity which helps people to protect their local countryside where there is threat, to enhance it where there is opportunity and to keep it beautiful, productive and enjoyable for everyone. CPRE, therefore, has a particular interest in the future and development of organic farming and we welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to the Committee.

  2.  Our comments concentrate on three key areas which we urge the Committee to address:

    —  the justification of public funding for organic farming;

    —  paying for the environmental benefits of organic farming; and

    —  ensuring best value from public support for organic farming.

JUSTIFICATION OF PUBLIC FUNDING FOR ORGANIC FARMING

  3.  The dramatic growth in demand for food produced to organic standards is well recorded. The market for organic food in the UK is growing at the rate of 49 per cent per annum. The UK, however, relies heavily on imports to meet this demand and the volume of UK exports of organic food is negligible. The cost of conversion to organic farming is significant as farmers experience a reduction in yields while being unable to benefit from any premium price until the conversion is complete. We believe that Government support for farmers converting to organic production is justified on the grounds of the public demand for organic products, the failure of domestic supply to meet that demand and the high costs of conversion. We are not convinced, however, of the need to support organic farming per se. Organic farming benefits from the same CAP subsidies as conventional agriculture, although it has been argued that this is not to the same extent. CPRE does not believe that farming and rural areas are best supported through subsidies related to agricultural production. The CAP is slowly moving towards a new basis for farm and rural support that pays for the social and environmental benefits of farming that can't be rewarded by the market. Support is also being re-focused onto aid to help farmers to adapt to new economic circumstances and market demands. We believe organic farming will be well placed to benefit from these shifts in agricultural policy.

  4.  Organic farming in England is supported by Government by the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS). The financial pressures facing the OFS have been well publicised, with the scheme having exhausted its 1999 budget in the first half of the year, and the budget for 2000 already largely allocated to those who could not enter the scheme in 1999. CPRE has warmly welcomed the new money announced in December 1999 for funding the Rural Development Regulation, which includes the OFS. There is already enormous demand for these resources, illustrating the great potential for extending a range of green farming schemes, including organic farming, and this will require a greater switch of resources in the long-term. The £140 million allocated to organic funding over the next six years will, however, be subject to similar demands as soon as it comes on line in 2001.

  5.  Given the likely demands on the OFS in future years, we believe there is a clear need to re-assess the scheme and look at how to utilise the limited resources available in order to achieve best value for money. We also believe that any potential shortfall in resources for the OFS in the future should not be met from a redirection of money available for agri-environment schemes.

PAYING FOR THE ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS OF ORGANIC FARMING

  6.  CPRE recognises the intrinsic environmental benefits which flow from organic production. Organic farming encourages the maintenance of mixed farming which can be important in landscape terms and in supporting a diversity of wildlife habitats. Synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which can have a direct and indirect impact on wildlife, are not permitted in organic farming, although some "natural" pesticides are. Organic farming also encourages a greater variety in cropping and also the greater use of spring sown crops which have benefits for species such as ground nesting birds. The benefits of organic farming methods for the landscape, or managing specific wildlife habitats are, however, less clear cut.

  7.  Research conducted by the Countryside Commission in 1997 into the Effects of Organic Farming on the Landscape concluded that:

    "the degree to which farmers positively affect the landscape is more a matter of the attitude and initiatives of the particular farmer and not the direct result of whether a farm adopts an organic farming system or not".

  8.  This suggests that organic farmers may be more likely to adopt management practices which benefit the landscape due to their greater awareness and convictions about the impact of farming on the environment. As more farmers are attracted to conversion to organic production for primarily financial reasons, rather than other convictions, then this indirect relationship between organic farming and a well managed countryside may change. Indeed it is possible that a farmer converting to organic may choose to plough ancient grassland, rich in wildlife and landscape value, specifically because it has been free from artificial inputs and so short-cut the normal conversion period.

  9.  In addition, a recent report on the benefits of enhanced organic conservation standards by the Soil Association, The Organic Farming Environment (1999), recognised that:

    "some aspects of organic production might conflict with conservation and environmental objectives".

  10.  It also illustrated that, while conservation and environmental protection standards do exist, these are recommended standards rather than requirements, they vary between the different regulatory bodies and their full potential may not always be realised in practice.

  11.  Organic farming should not, therefore, be seen as intrinsically capable of delivering the whole range of environmental benefits that society values nor is it the only type of production that can deliver these, given the right incentives. We believe that the existing Government schemes that reward farmers for the production of public goods, such as the Countryside Stewardship and Environmentally Sensitive Area schemes are complementary to organic farming's intrinsic environmental benefits and should remain separate from aid for organic conversion. Organic farmers should be encouraged to apply for agri-environment schemes on the same basis as conventional farmers. The intrinsic environmental benefits of organic farming should give them a competitive advantage in being selected for these schemes.

  12.  There appears to be some confusion in Government policy, however, in the way agri-environment schemes are capable of rewarding intrinsic environmental benefits that flow from not only organic farming, but also less intensive conventional farming, such as upland livestock production. The proposed Hill Farming Scheme, which is intended to be the replacement for the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance scheme, includes an element of reward for the production of intrinsic environmental benefits of upland farming, such as the maintenance of rough grassland and moor. The maintenance of our lowland grazed landscapes, which contribute so much to the beauty of counties such as Devon or Herefordshire, however, do not receive any support of this type, which is justified for their upland contemporaries.

  13.  CPRE believes that this confusion over paying for the environmental benefits of farming needs to be resolved as soon as possible. We believe that the Government should launch a comprehensive review of its agri-environment schemes in order to assess if the intrinsic environmental benefits of various farming systems, including organic farming, should be rewarded by public support and if so how these benefits are assessed and how they will be paid for.

ENSURING BEST VALUE FROM PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR ORGANIC FARMING

  14.  The growing popularity of organic and agri-environment schemes suggests that they are being increasingly seen by farmers as providing opportunities for making their businesses more economically viable. This fits in with the Government's new direction for agriculture and its emphasis on integrated rural development through accessing new markets by adding value to products and encouraging the development of diversification initiatives, support for which is available through the RDR.

  15.  Conversion to organic farming is a complex process with additional business risks associated with it and the need for particular marketing skills. CPRE wishes to see the OFS contribute to business success in the countryside. We, therefore, believe that applicants should be required to submit a business plan with their application to the OFS. The business plan could be used to identify the other strands of Government support for farming that the applicant would wish to access, and any plans for diversification should be shown to be consistent with local planning policies. The plan would also help to ensure the long-term viability of the business.

  16.  CPRE would also welcome the inclusion of an assessment of the prospective environmental benefits of conversion to organic farming to be submitted with the applicant for aid. This could take the form of a requirement for the completion of a whole farm conservation plan when making an application and should include an assessment of the impact of conversion on the landscape. A recent survey by the Soil Association found that currently only 31 per cent of organic farmers had a conservation plan for their farm, although 83 per cent were open to the idea of preparing one, if the financial costs could be overcome. The completion of a whole farm conservation plan would therefore help to ensure that farmers' were fully aware of the impacts of conversion to organic farming on the countryside.

  17.  CPRE believes that a tendering system similar to the discretionary approach used to assess applications for the Countryside Stewardship Scheme will be desirable as a means of ensuring best value for Government support for organic conversion, given that resources are likely to remain limited and demand high. The submission of a business plan and a conservation plan, as discussed above, could form the basis of the tender. This would help to ensure that those best prepared and fully committed to conversion to organic farming were given priority and would make applicants fully consider the environmental and economic implications of conversion.

  18.  Preparation of plans will have cost implications for the farmer. In order to minimise the administrative burden the process of preparing and submitting a tender should be partially subsidised, following the model currently used for the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. The information services that are currently available for farmers wishing to convert to organic production would also need to be extended to provide appropriate advice regarding the preparation of business plans and whole farm conservation plans and other training needs.

12 June 2000


 
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