Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 30

Memorandum submitted by English Nature (F39)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  1.  Organic farming has an important contribution to make to maintaining a healthy environment and supporting the recovery of biodiversity. Organic farming illustrates a significant trend in farming which has implications beyond the small current area under registered organic production. Increasingly there is a divergence between farming types in Britain. Large-scale food markets demand large quantities of uniform, low cost products as raw materials for the food industry. Conversely, there is rapid and growing element amongst consumers who have expectations that their food is produced to high ethical standards, exemplified by concerns for animal welfare, social justice and the environment. Both the practices of organic farming and the certification of its products provide a guarantee to consumers that these ethical issues have been taken into account in farming. Other farming practices also need to be adapted to reduce their adverse impact on the environment and to support the delivery of environmental goods. Agri-environment and rural development initiatives have an important role to play here. Wider adoption of the environmental considerations which are now the hall-mark of the organic farming system would be helpful here. This is necessary to help reverse the serious decline of wildlife on farmland.

  2.  On land where organic farming is practised English Nature believes that the evidence is strong that it has significant positive benefits for wildlife on both the non-cropped and, importantly, the cropped areas of the farm. These benefits can be summarised as:

    2.1  Greater diversity of wildlife (more wildlife species).

    2.2  Higher abundance of wildlife (more individual animals and plants).

    2.3  Improved survival of species which have become rare or are rapidly declining on conventional farmland.

  3.  The existing organic standards provide the most stringent production system protocol for any sector of the farming industry and provide a real opportunity for helping to reverse some of the catastrophic declines in farmland biodiversity which have been seen in the UK in recent decades.

  4.  Although existing organic practices and standards are good, there is still room for improvement. English Nature is actively working with the Soil Association to improve further those parts of their standards which impact on farmland biodiversity. Furthermore we would like to see these higher conservation standards apply to all UK organic farmers and to products imported from overseas.

  5.  The eventual size of the impact which organic farming has on UK wildlife will depend not only on how good the system is for wildlife and how well farmers implement it but also on how much of the UK's farmland it comes to occupy. Farmers face many challenges in converting to organic farming and, to date, many do not have the confidence in the future to make a commitment to organic production. English Nature would like to see the Government do these things:

    5.1  continue to implement the Rural Development Regulation effectively with the increased budget recently announced;

    5.2  expand the budget further for all agri-environment measures (including organic conversion);

    5.3  adopt a strategic and proactive approach to supporting the expansion of the organic farming sector until the supply of produce is brought into line with consumer demand.

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1  English Nature is the statutory body responsible for advising both central and local Government on nature conservation and for promoting the wildlife and natural features of England. In fulfilling its duties, English Nature:

    —  advises Ministers on the development and implementation of policies for nature conservation;

    —  advises Ministers on other policies affecting nature conservation;

    —  identifies, notifies and safeguards Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs);

    —  establishes, maintains and manages National Nature Reserves (NNRs);

    —  provides guidance and advice on the principles and practice of nature conservation to a wide constituency;

    —  commissions and supports research and other projects relevant to nature conservation.

  1.2  Through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, English Nature works with sister organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to advise Government on UK and international nature conservation issues.

2.  SCOPE OF EVIDENCE

  2.1  English Nature is not qualified to comment on some of the issues raised in the press notice which launched this enquiry. Additionally there is one area, the biodiversity benefits of organic farming, which is not mentioned in the press notice and where we would like to draw the committee's attention to what English Nature believes is important new evidence. We will comment on:

    (1)  The biodiversity benefits of organic farming;

    (2)  The role of farm assurances schemes;

    (3)  The role of organic certification organisations and the setting of organic standards.

3.  THE BIODIVERSITY BENEFITS OF ORGANIC FARMING

  3.1  English Nature has been concerned for many years at the damage done by intensive farming, not just to the special wildlife sites which it is our particular role to protect, but also to the wildlife which until recently was an integral part of the fabric of the whole countryside.

  3.2  Published and peer-reviewed, ecological research has identified some of the more damaging practices of conventional agriculture which have been responsible for many of the species declines recorded in the wider farmed environment in the last half of the twentieth century.

  3.3  There are good grounds for expecting that organic farming, as it is routinely practiced in the UK lowlands, will help to reverse or at least mitigate many of these practices and produce an environment which is more attractive to our native wildlife. These theoretical grounds are detailed at annex 1.

  3.4  English Nature recently reviewed the available published evidence, all of which relates to the lowlands, which has sought to test this hypothesis and this review is attached at annex 2.

  3.5  In summary the review concluded that in making a change in land management as fundamental as moving from conventional to organic farming there are bound to be wildlife species which benefit and others which will lose out. There are some clear conclusions which can be drawn from the studies reviewed. The most important of these conclusions are that, when comparing the two farming systems, then on balance:

    3.5.1  there are higher numbers and greater densities of non crop species (wildlife) on organic farms;

    3.5.2  there is a greater diversity of wildlife on organic farms;

    3.5.3  overwhelmingly, whether it is Birds of Conservation Concern, rare arable weeds or non pest butterflies, the wildlife species which have suffered the greatest declines on farmland in the last 50 years do better under an organic farming system.

  3.6  English Nature's Council examined the evidence attached at annex 1 and 2 at a meeting on the 17 May 2000 and subsequently issued the position statement on Organic Farming attached at annex 3 [not printed].

  3.7  Ultimately it may not matter how good a particular farming system is for wildlife if it only occupies a small proportion of the landscape. For organic farming to make a meaningful impact on the farmland biodiversity crisis it will need to grow until it occupies a far more significant area. The potential for this is there, in the rapid increase in consumer demand, the extent to which imported produce could be substituted by home grown and the impressive growth rates (albeit from a low base) which organic farming has achieved in recent years.

  3.8  In parallel, other farming systems need to deliver equivalent biodiversity benefits. We need environmentally sensitive farming across much more of the English landscape. English Nature has an inclusive approach to the farming community and gives advice on how to safeguard and enhance wildlife on all farms. English Nature believes organic farming offers part of the solution to enhancing biodiversity. We are keen to work with everyone in the agriculture industry especially those who share our vision of recreating many more biodiversity rich landscapes. All farming systems will need to address the issues identified in our position statement on environmentally sustainable agriculture and nature conservation (Annex 4 [not printed]).

4.  THE ROLE OF FARM ASSURANCES SCHEMES

  4.1  English Nature participated in a DETR sponsored evaluation of the environmental conditions of quality assurance schemes for food production in 1999[24] which looked at conventional farm assurance schemes.

  4.2  An examination of the way in which organic farm assurance delivers results to both the environment and farmers reveals a number of critical and interlinked factors, which will need to be in place for any farm assurance scheme which aspires to use the consumer market to support the delivery of wildlife benefits. Organic farming has:

    4.2.1  a defined and regulated set of standards;

    4.2.2  a proven ability to deliver wildlife benefit;

    4.2.3  a brand which consumers trust;

    4.2.4  lower levels of per hectare production—which are a feature of wildlife friendly farming;

    4.3.5  premium prices which pass back down the supply chain to the farmer. This compensates for the lower level of production.

  4.3  Continuing to secure these benefits will require that any farming system maintains a high level of integrity in order to secure public confidence. English Nature is aware of anecdotal evidence that lack of specific biodiversity training among some organic advisors and inspectors has compromised the generally high quality of advice which is available to both converting and practicing organic farmers. We would like to see specific training put in place to rectify this deficiency.

  4.4  To date, most farm assurance schemes only benefit wildlife as an incidental consequence of following good agricultural practice (as defined in the codes) in pursuit of other objectives, especially food safety. It is essential that more progress is made in pursuing practicable codes of conservation management within the increasing range of farm assurance standards.

5.  THE ROLE OF ORGANIC CERTIFICATION ORGANISATIONS AND THE SETTING OF ORGANIC STANDARDS

  5.1  All UK organic production has to confirm with standards set by the UK Register of Organic Food Standards. These reflect, and may further enhance, base line standards set by the European Union.

  5.2  Individual certification bodies may decide to further enhance their standards. Historically the Soil Association has led the way in this field and for many years has included additional wildlife standards in its own regulations.

  5.3  While acknowledging the important role which organic farmers have taken in pioneering the development of a wildlife friendly farming system English Nature feels that, with a little extra effort, there is more which organic farming could deliver for wildlife.

  5.4  English Nature is concerned on three fronts:

    5.5.1  The increasing number of new entrants to organic farming who are opting to register with certification organisations who adopt the lower (in terms of wildlife protection) UKROFS standards.

    5.5.2  The potential for some future developments in organic agronomy to erode some of the present intrinsic benefits to wildlife of the organic farming system, eg stockless organic systems.

    5.5.3  the large proportion of UK organic consumption which is produced overseas and which is rarely produced under codes which follows explicit conservation management standards.

  5.5  English Nature has been working closely with the Soil Association since 1998 to try and improve the conservation elements of the Soil Association standards. We welcome the way in which the Soil Association has actively encouraged the involvement of wildlife conservation organisations in this process.

  5.6  In order to guard against the concerns outlined in 5.5.1 and to further underpin consumer confidence in organic farming as a wildlife friendly system of food production English Nature would like to see the additional safeguards for wildlife, adopted by or under discussion with the Soil Association, incorporated into the UKROFS regulations so that they apply uniformly to all UK organic production.

  5.7  English Nature would also like to see action taken at international (EU and globally through IFOAM—the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) to ensure that enhanced and relevant biodiversity standards are applied to all organic production.

13 June 2000


24   Bains, R N; Dee T M; Manley; W J. & Smith G P. Quality Assurance Schemes For Food Production-An Evaluation Of The Environmental Conditions. Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions Report. April 2000. Back


 
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