`One in six farms to go organic within decade'

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ORGANIC FARMING is booming in Britain, with the acreage of land kept free of fertilisers and pesticides doubling in one year.

However, there is unlikely to be any decrease in the relatively high prices of organic foods for consumers - at least not for several years.

Dr Nic Lampkin, a leading British authority on organic farming, told a conference yesterday that one in six farms could be organic by 2010.

Conventional farming with chemicals was mired in recession while the Government had boosted the payment it givesfarmers to convert to organic methods from pounds 250 per hectare to pounds 450. At the same time, there was such a strong demand for organic foods that supermarkets had to import the bulk of what they sold from abroad.

Dr Lampkin said many farmers feared that as organic produce moves into the mainstream, it would no longer fetch premium prices. However, he believed it would continue to be relatively expensive for several years due to strong growth in demand.

Dr Lampkin, of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, saidBritain, which has an estimated 1,500 organic farmers, now had one of the fastest growth rates of organic farming in Europe. Currently, one per cent of the total farm acreage is organic but over the next decade this could rise to 15 per cent.

Sales of produce across the European Union were worth about pounds 4bn a year, Dr Lampkin told the National Conference on Organic Food and Farming in Cirencester, Glos.

Dr Jules Pretty of the University of Essex said that chemical-free farming could feed the globe's entire population of 10 billion people in the next century. His research, covering 63 developing nations, had found there were already 2 million farmers who had used organic techniques to at least double their crop production.

Many of them had abandoned the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides because they could no longer afford them. Yet, from India to Brazil, they had still found ways of doubling or even trebling yields.

``We're no longer talking about techniques used experimentally," he said.

Dr Pretty, director of his university's Centre for Environment and Society, gave the example of the velvet bean,grown in maize fields in Honduras and Guatemala. The bean has raised maize yields from 800kg per hectare to two tonnes - approaching the yields obtained by intensive farming in Europe. The bean turns nitrogen in the air into nitrate fertiliser in the soil. Once fully grown, it is cut down and allowed to rot - making compost.