UK farmers miss out on boom in organic food sales

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Indy Lifestyle Online

THE SOIL Association launched a campaign to increase Britain's organic food production yesterday - over a breakfast made up entirely of imported organic food.

THE SOIL Association launched a campaign to increase Britain's organic food production yesterday - over a breakfast made up entirely of imported organic food.

They were trying to hammer home the point that British consumers are now spending £1bn a year on organic produce, but this country's struggling farmers are missing out on "the one bright ray of hope".

The croissants were baked from Belgian dough. The milk was from Sweden and Germany. The butter was from Denmark. The jam and marmalade were from Germany and Holland. The fruit juice was from Florida, the tea from India and the coffee from Peru. Only one British item was on the menu - spicy teacakes. But the supplier failed to deliver them.

While one-third of Britons have bought organic food in the past three months - half of them because they believed it to be safe and healthy, according to the Ministry of Agriculture - 70 per cent of the United Kingdom's organic food is imported.

Ministry of Agriculture officials have calculated that 5 per cent of Britain's farmland would need to be organic to meet current demand, even after leaving out tropical produce such as coffee and bananas, which will always have to be imported. The current figure is barely over 1 per cent.

Government funding under the Organic Aid Scheme is £6.5m this year and £8.5m next - 0.2 per cent of its £3bn annual spend on agriculture subsidies.

This level of support is half the average level in other European Union countries. The UK is also one of only three EU countries that do not give organic farmers additional "maintenance" payments following conversion.

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, speaking at the launch of the 1999 Organic Food and Farming Report in London yesterday, said the organic aid budget should be boosted immediately to at least £50m a year if the UK organic sector is to keep up with demand and fight off foreign competition. "If the Government really wanted to support organic agriculture it would find the money tomorrow," he said.

His fear is that after record numbers of farmers have chosen to convert to organic - the area under conversion has doubled in each of the last two years - that flood will now slow to a trickle due to the lack of funds. This would allow organic farmers and processors abroad to consolidate their grip on the UK's organic market. Simon Brenman, the association's agricultural development director, said he was "very disappointed" that the breakfast was imported. "We all need to be asking this question: not just is it organic but where is it from? Ideally we should buy food that is locally produced, not just from the UK."

Robert Duxbury, organic product manager at Sainsbury's, was "not surprised" about the breakfast. But he insisted it could have been sourced entirely in the UK. "We could do it easily, complete with organic English eggs and bacon," he said. "But the fact is imported organic produce is more easily accessed and supplies are often more secure."

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