Organic farmers urged to quit NFU

Can British farming go green?
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Environment Correspondent

A leader of Britain's organic farmers yesterday urged all of them to follow his example and quit the National Farmers' Union.

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association and British Organic Farmers, said an article by two NFU economists in yesterday's Independent was ``the straw that broke the camel's back".

``I've now lost patience with the NFU - this is the latest example of them giving us only token support, of [in effect] damning us with faint praise,'' he said. The article, by Tom Maher and Sion Roberts, was in response to the Independent on Tuesday, when the entire comment page was devoted to the case for organic farming. That debate followed the BSE scare.

The NFU's economists argued that it would be ``folly'' for all or most of Britain's farmers to switch to organic production, because there was no widespread demand for such produce and it would make them internationally uncompetitive.

Mr Holden, who has an organic farm near Lampeter, in North Wales, said he had stayed in the NFU because it exerted a powerful influence on the Ministry of Agriculture and had shown some support for organic farming. Now it was clear that the union only saw this type of agriculture occupying a small niche, he said, never assuming a significant role.

He added: ``It's time the NFU took a serious look at its outdated policy and prejudices, and until it does I'm out. My farming partner and I pay a pounds 200 annual subscription to the NFU and pounds 40 to British Organic Farming [which represents and services only organic producers]. With the kind of backing we're getting from the union that makes no sense for us or any other BOF member.''

He will make his call in the next issue of New Farmer and Grower, but he wants to continue talking to the union because some of its senior office- holders are sympathetic.

BOF has 600 members, of whom more than half are with the NFU. Organic production covers just 0.3 per cent of Britain's total agricultural land, and most of the United Kingdom's organic food is imported. The producers argue that the best of them can now produce yields close to those averaged by conventional farmers and growers, while minimising harm to the environment and creating safe food.

In 1989, BOF and the Soil Association announced their goal of raising this percentage area to 20 per cent by 2000, although the two now merged organisations admit they are unlikely to achieve it. Mr Holden said their estimate was that 5 per cent of existing British farms could now convert to organic farming profitably, but the great majority could not because existing European Union and government policies locked them into intensive farming.

The association promotes organic produce and certifies that it meets government and European standards for being pesticide and fertiliser-free.

An NFU spokeswoman regretted Mr Holden's decision. She said the union had no policy for how large organic farming should become in Britain, because that was down to the decisions of individual farmers meeting consumer demand.

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