Switch fields to organic produce, farmers urged

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The Independent Online
The Government will today announce that it wants to help boost organic farming by encouraging farmers to devote more fields to agriculture free of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. Currently just 0.3 per cent of the country's farmland is organic, among the lowest levels in Europe.

At present, Britain gives less support to its 850 organic farmers than any other nation in the European Union - pounds 50 per hectare per year, but only for a five-year period while they convert from conventional farming. After that the support ends. The great majority of the other European Union nations, 12 out of the 15, continue to give maintenance payments after the conversion period has ended to help subsidise the environmentally friendly farming.

But while the Government has accepted that there is a case for raising the conversion payments, it is not willing to make any commitment to entering into permanent, ongoing maintenance payments.

Nick Lampkin, of the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, a leading expert on organic farming, said: "There is a strong case, on several grounds, for maintenance payments, and MPs on the House of Commons' agriculture committee have called for them."

Other schemes to promote green farming in Britain give ongoing subsidies to farmers. And not having maintenance payments makes it hard for Britain's organic farmers to compete with the rest of Europe; the great bulk of organic food purchased here is imported.

Furthermore, if many British conventional farmers did decide to convert, they would have an unfair advantage in competing with the existing organic farmers - because they alone would be getting a subsidy.

In 1989, Britain's organic farmers announced their goal of having 20 per cent of the country's farmland under organic systems by 2000. But there is now no hope of achieving it.

Today's announcement of the policy review is due to be made by Elliot Morley, minister for the countryside and fisheries, when he visits one of Britain's largest organic farms, Eastbrook Farm, near Swindon.