Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 26

Memorandum submitted by the United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association (UKASTA) (F35)

1.  BACKGROUND TO UKASTA

  The United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association (UKASTA) represents more than 350 companies and cooperatives in the agricultural supply industry. Members comprise crop traders, animal feed manufacturers and agricultural merchants who supply products and advisory services to farmers for feed, seed, fertilisers, forage additives, and agrochemicals. Their combined annual turnover is £5 billion.

2.  UKASTA'S INTEREST IN ORGANIC ISSUES

  The principal area of concern to UKASTA for the purposes of this submission is the seed sector. This has become an area of particular concern to UKASTA members as the derogation allowing the use of non-organic seed within organic farming systems comes to an end on 31 December 2003. A combination of uncertainty over the possibility of a further renewal of the derogation, concerns about the quality of imported seed, and above all, the burden of regulation within the organic sector as a whole has meant that many seed companies are considering not becoming involved. This could have serious repercussions for the whole UK organic movement in the short to medium term.

  UKASTA represents the bulk of the UK seed trade, and therefore is well placed to represent the concerns of member companies to the Committee.

3.  ROLE OF ORGANIC CERTIFICATION BODIES

  The principal concern of UKASTA members regarding organic certification bodies is that of "gold-plating" of UKROFS regulations. The Soil Association has been working for some time on a standard for organic seed certification which it has hoped to have adopted by the other certification bodies. Staff within the Soil Association have been very open about their intention of exceeding by a considerable margin the standards required by UKROFS.

  While the highest standards are to be encouraged, it is the belief of UKASTA and many within the UK seed trade, that in raising standards to the levels envisaged by the Soil Association and others, companies will be discouraged from investment. For example, staff within the Soil Association have made it clear that they foresee a role in policing pricing structures of organic seed at some stage in the future. Market forces rather than a certification body should govern prices, but the fact that intentions such as this are aired in public drives seed companies from involvement, and more importantly, investment in the organic sector.

  There are other examples of certification bodies making statements similar to this regarding pricing and market structure, and they have begun to have an impact on the seed trade. UKASTA would suggest that the solution to making UK organics more accessible and commercially attractive as a sector (and ensuring that the UK is not dominated by organic imports) would be to increase the involvement of UKROFS in the regulatory process.

  UKASTA would suggest that the current situation, whereby commercial bodies have semi-statutory powers is to the advantage of nobody except those certifying bodies. There are currently eight organic certification bodies, all operating to different standards, and this is causing confusion in itself. It would therefore be better if all organic standards were laid down by Government and the organic certification bodies concentrated on inspections, information dissemination and marketing.

  This would, at a stroke, remove the situation whereby certification bodies produce the regulations and then charge farmers and suppliers for inspections to ensure that these rules are being observed.

4.  ORGANIC STANDARDS AND TOLERANCES

  It takes 10-12 years, and costs in the region of £2-3 million to develop a new seed variety and bring it to the market. The fear of involvement in the organic sector, for the reasons already outlined, may well act as a break on plant breeders investing in specialist organic seed varieties.

  Organic farmers operate in no less a commercial environment than their conventional counterparts. Their demand for the latest varieties is therefore just as strong, and is supported by their customers. The seed industry is therefore looked to for a programme of development of specialist organic varieties, bred to deal specifically with organic systems if the organic sector is to continue to grow in the UK. Our fear is that this will not happen in the current environment.

  If this does not happen, the UK will be reliant on using imported seed, that may have been produced to lower standards, and the traceability and integrity of organic food may ultimately be questioned. The concern of UKASTA is that at this stage many within the seed trade see few potential benefits from investment in organic seed breeding programmes within the current regulatory climate.

5.  THE ROLE OF TRADE ASSOCIATIONS

  Trade Associations such as UKASTA can be helpful to the development of the UK organic market in that they can act on a cross-sectoral basis. The experience within the staff and the breadth of membership, particularly of UKASTA mean that we are able to identify potential problems and will have an understanding of how an issue for one sector may impact on another.

  Trade Associations are also involved in the various farm assurance schemes that have been introduced to try to provide full traceability through the food chain. Farmers are audited by these schemes and there may be a potential, at some stage in the future, for combining various audits into one. This could perhaps include an extension to cover the on-farm auditing of organic standards.

6.  IMPORTS

  There is concern amongst UKASTA members that there is a disparity between the standards of organic practice in the UK, as regulated by the certification bodies, and those of other countries, both within and outside the EU, from where the majority of UK organic food is currently sourced.

  This situation is unlikely to be resolved in the short term, and acts as a disincentive for involvement. For UKASTA members, the biggest impact of this is again on the seed trade. The incentive to invest, not only in new varieties, but also in dedicated handling facilities, and in the future, dedicated seed cleaning lines, simply does not exist with the current market situation. This particularly galling when there is an undoubted desire by UKASTA members to be at the forefront of the organic movement, producing organic seed to complete the organic "chain".

  It is probable, however, that without substantial movement on the issues raised in this paper, the future of UK organics will continue to be dominated by imported seed, and probably also by imported food.

7.  CONCLUSIONS

  In the recent past, organic food has moved from being a niche towards becoming a mainstream product. The last few years have seen a dramatic growth in the organic sector, and it is the only area of food retailing where this growth, at the expense of conventional food, is predicted to continue.

  The aim of UKASTA in this submission has been to highlight the concerns of our membership regarding the control systems in place for this market. UKASTA believes that the current regulatory regime is no longer adequate particularly if the market growth is as significant as has been predicted.

  Without changes to the way the sector is regulated, we believe that many plant breeders and seed traders will choose to avoid the organic market altogether, and that this in itself will have serious long term repercussions.

12 June 2000


 
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