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Certifiers consider options for organic protection in recession

By Jess Halliday , 23-Dec-2008
Last updated on 23-Dec-2008 at 14:25 GMT

UK organic certifiers are in early stage discussions over whether it could be feasible for organic farmers to feed some animals conventional feed for a limited period, without compromising their organic certification in the long term.

British newspapers The Times and The Telegraph reported yesterday that organic farmers had asked the government for a “holiday” during the recession, because of the high price of organic animal feed compared with conventional and falling organic demand.

Organic feed is said to cost around £320 per tonne (c €338 at today’s exchange rate), compared to around £160 (c €169) per tonne for conventional feed.

However Mark Waugh, spokesperson for Organic Farmers and Growers (OFG), told FoodNavigator.com that the idea is in early stage discussions between certifiers and no approach has been made to Defra.

Although OFG says that discussion of specific plans would be premature, a broad aim could be for organic farmers to have the option to feed some animals conventional period for a limited time, in order to have some respite from the high costs. These animals would cease to be organic and any produce derived from them would not be labelled as organic.

Under current rules, this would mean that the whole farm would lose its organic status, and have to re-start the process once all animals were eating organic again. This would take a couple of years, and would mean that there would be limited organic supply to meet demand once it increases again.

“You can’t turn the tap back on when consumers want to start buying again,” said Waugh.

But since all other aspects would remain in place, such as low stocking densities, minimal antibiotic use and no chemical fertilizers, the certifiers are looking at whether farmers could avoid having to re-start the process, even if they switch to conventional feed temporarily.

He stressed that the idea is not to dilute the standards. “Protection of organic standards and trust of consumers is at the heart.”

What is more, it is seen as a worst case option. If it were to be accepted by Defra and the EU, any farmer were to avail themselves of it they would be taking “a desperate measure”.

EU feed rules

Historically, the EU allowed for a proportion of conventional feed to be used alongside organic feed, because there was not enough organic feed available. Over the last three years, the percentages have come down incrementally and for some organic animals are already at zero.

The current debate is not about raising those percentages again, however, since a huge amount of work has gone into building the standards and market.

“Everyone would wish this to be a temporary thing. The impetus is to keep tightening the standards.”

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