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Britain grows slow in world

Britain, with one of the smallest percentages of land under organic production in the European Union, is suddenly interested in `green' farming methods following the BSE crisis while other member states have seen almost explosive growth in this sector.

Generous taxpayer subsidies, concerned consumers and the Alps have made Austria the developed world's leading organic farming nation. Just over 11 per cent of its farmland receives no chemical fertilisers or pesticides.

Sweden trails in second place, with 3.3 per cent of its farm land given over to organic production. Germany is third with just under two per cent.

In 1990, the Austrian Government offered farmers new subsidies - for each hectare farmed according to strict organic and animal-welfare principles they would receive a fixed payment.

The country's agriculture was well suited to the switch. There are thousands of small sheep and cattle farms on Alpine pastures where the grass receives little artificial fertiliser.

The third strand in this environmental success story is the co-operation between organic farmers' associations and retailers which led to several main supermarket chains heavily backing organic produce.

Simone Lughofer, agricultural campaigner in Austria with the Worldwide Fund for Nature, said 30 per cent of all sales of fresh produce in one chain falls into the organic category. It costs, on average, 10 to 15 per cent more than its intensively produced counterpart - in Britain this organic premium is at least 20 per cent.

The produce includes not just vegetables, but cheese, milk, noodles and bread. There is a World Wildlife Fund- endorsed "Panda" bread which earns money for the charity.

``Getting it into the supermarkets was the real breakthrough because the average consumer is a little lazy - they don't want to have to visit a special organic shop,'' said Frau Lughofer. ``Now it has become kind of fashionable.'' The subsidies range from 3,000 Schillings (pounds 188) per hectare for organic grassland to 10,000 Schillings (pounds 625) for vines.

The subsidies started before Austria joined the European Union and have continued since - Common Agricultural Policy regulations allow them, but only as part of a ``agri-environment'' package subject to financial limits.

Sweden's farmers also pride themselves on being environment and animal welfare-friendly. The change in direction away from the most intensive methods, fostered by a mix of voluntary agreements and Government policies, began in 1953 when a salmonella epidemic killed 100 people. One farm union chose television advertising to explain its stance on environmental issues.

Britain only offers subsidies for the process of converting from intensive to organic production. But the uptake has been disappointing and only 0.3 per cent of agricultural land is organically farmed.