UK producers say they stand alone as DEFRA rules out cash for organics

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Organic food, Organic farming

UK producers say they stand alone as DEFRA rules out cash for organics
DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) has ruled out financial support for the organic industry, despite producers saying they stand alone and a Soil Association (SA) report damning Whitehall’s “diffident, if not lazy” approach.

In ‘The Lazy Man of Europe’, the SA says that a passive approach from successive UK governments – reacting to consumer demand for organics rather than promoting a £2bn industry like other EU administrations – is at least partially to blame for an 13.6% overall sales dip in 2009.

Conversely, 2009 sales in Germany remained stable while French and Italian sales grew sharply, and the SA said that proactive measures from other EU nations – whether on a fiscal or legislative basis – had spurred growth; the UK's £2m 'Why I Love Organic Campaign'​ that began this January is wholly industry funded.

Responding to the report, DEFRA ruled out public funding for organic producers, and Simon Wood, general manager of organic meat producer The Well Hung Meat Company, told he was unimpressed:“I agree with the SA that there has been very little support for the UK’s organic industry, despite government rhetoric it’s been left purely to the private sector.

“The SA inspects us, but the government has no advanced no legislative or financial incentives whatsoever. Organic production costs more: we need a license, which is a significant annual fee as a percentage of turnover, while strict traceability controls on all meat also cost extra, and non-organic firms don’t need to comply with this demand.”

Other EU governments push organic

According to the SA: “Most European countries have acted confidently to normalise and champion organic food and farming as a pioneering, sustainable and environmentally friendly way to produce food.

“In contrast, UK governments have been diffident, if not lazy on the subject. When it comes to thinking in a truly sustainable way about the future of food and farming ​[they] have preferred to sit back and snooze.”

The SA said the Swedish Livmedelsverket (the Food Standards Agency’s equivalent) actively recommends locally sourced organic produce to the public – upon a health, welfare and non-intensive processing platform – while the Dutch government targeted a 10% growth on consumers’ organic spend between 2008-11

Where support for organic farmers was crucial at the start of the supply chain, the SA said the UK only offered per hectare grants averaging €87 from 2002-2006, well behind Sweden (€130) and Germany (€175): UK grants now stand at €71.

DEFRA: sector not a special case

On a rhetorical level, at least, DEFRA supports organic food, with Agriculture Minister Jim Paice saying recently that he believed organic principles led the way on sustainable farming.

However, a DEFRA spokeswoman said firms should focus on being competitive and customer-focused to build market share.

“Organic farming is one of the pioneering approaches to sustainable production and remains influential, but it’s not the only one, and it would not be right to increase taxpayer support for one particular sector​,​ she said.

“The ​[Global Food and Farming Futures​] Foresight report was clear that we need a range of approaches to sustainability and for food security. Many consumers make some purchases of organic produce. It commands a premium price but it represents less than two percent of the market.”

Paying the organic premium

Nonetheless Wood said Well Hung was “not part of the doom and gloom story”​ surrounding organics. “We’ve doubled our turnover within the last 12 months, and did so by standing alone against negative media and government messages.”

“We take issue with the message that ‘organic is premium’ or exclusive, and stress to customers that organic is good for you, tastes better and is less damaging for the environment.”

But Jocelyn Leslie, md, Juni Organic (which supplies organic ready meals for children to nurseries and farm shops) said the price issue was central: “We’re not really seeing growth now. People love the idea of organic frozen ready meals for kids, but ultimately parents (funding nurseries) need to be prepared to pay a little more.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything out there promoting the organic way for either consumers or industry."

Stressing consumer confusion about the alleged benefits of organic food, Leslie described the FSA’s July 2009 report​ finding no nutritional or added health benefits in organic food as “damaging and unhelpful”.

“Obviously we were unfortunate that one hit the headlines, but others ​[such as the EU-funded Quality Low Input Food research] have reached opposite conclusions.”

Related topics: Market Trends

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