Organic farmers have asked the Government for permission to take a “holiday” from strict organic standards in an attempt to survive the recession.
The drastic move by organisations including the Soil Association follows a dip in sales of organic produce and fears for the future of Britain’s 5,000 organic farmers.
Sales of organic food slumped 10 per cent in the 12 weeks up to the end of November, according to the latest figures from the consumer researchers TNS. Overall food sales over the same period were up 6 per cent.
Organic certification bodies, including the Soil Association, the country’s biggest campaigner for organic food and farming, asked Hilary Benn, the Rural Affairs Secretary, last week for approval to relax the rules for an indefinite period. They want their members to be able to use conventional animal feed instead of organic food concentrate, which costs double. Average organic feed prices are £320 a tonne compared with £160 a tonne for conventional feed.
The plan, which is also supported by Organic Farmers & Growers and the Organic Food Federation, would still oblige farmers to follow other organic tenets such as low stocking densities, minimum use of antibiotic treatments on animals and no use of fertilisers. But they would give up the right to label their food “organic”. The aim is to give farmers some leeway during the harsh economic climate.
They want to establish new organic ground rules before the market becomes even more depressed next year.
A new generation of organic producers is also preparing to enter the market. There are currently 400 extra farmers converting their land to organic production and many will be offering organic produce for the first time next year. The concern is that, if the rules on feed are not eased, they will be left disenchanted and out of pocket if sales flounder over the next couple of years.
The move has been condemned by the Organic Research Centre, which fears that organic “holidays” will confuse shoppers and lead to a further sales slump. The centre, based at Elm Farm near Newbury, Berkshire, which champions small producers, rails against the plan in its latest bulletin. An editorial declares: “Not a trip to Lanzarote or even the sun-kissed Seychelles – oh, no – this is a production holiday from the crippling travails of being a ‘proper’ organic farmer. You know, that minor inconvenience of rearing your stock on feed that has not been soaked in pesticides or rendered down from decaying livestock.”
Richard Sanders, a centre spokesman, said: “Has UK organic agriculture descended from high principle to flip-flop market tracking? Any proper organic farmer should not be exposed anyway to the vagaries of the feed market because they are supposed to be growing their own on the farm.”
Even though the Soil Association, of which the Prince of Wales is patron, opened the issue for debate, it has provoked division within its ranks.
Liz Finlay, an egg and vegetable producer, who farms at Llanilar, near Aberystwyth, said: “I feel there are already procedures laid down in the rules for producers to change practices if they are in any difficulty – provided they discuss it with their certifying body. But to stand up and announce an organic holiday gives out the wrong message, especially to people who are farming organically for the public good.”
Phil Stocker, director of farmer and grower relations at the association, said: “We have seen a dip in organic sales and opportunistic buyers have drifted away, especially from beef, lamb, pork, eggs and poultry. We are also getting close to a point where there is not much difference in prices for organic and conventional produce. Many businesses are struggling and suffering, and we are trying to find a solution acceptable to everyone.”
A spokeswoman at Clarence House confirmed that there were no plans for Home Farm, part of the Prince’s Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire, to move away from organic feed.
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that it was willing to consider the plan if it complied with EU rules.
The Plain English Campaign has criticised “meaningless waffle” on organic food labels. Examples include:
Free-range chicken “Chickens that have the freedom to range the farms, pastures and hedgerows”
Fresh British chicken “Birds live in small mobile arks. Freedom to range the farm’s organic pastures and hedgerows”
Fresh British whole duck “Ducks have access to water in order to preen themselves”
British free-range chickens “These free roaming chickens are reared in small spacious farms where they grow at a natural rate”