EU wrecks organic farming boom

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Indy Politics

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Correspondent

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Correspondent

31 October 1999

BUREAUCRATIC bungling in Brussels will prevent British farmers going organic from the New Year because the Government will be unable to hand over grants helping them make the change.

As well as stopping a booming new agricultural revolution in its tracks, the Brussels error will also stop the Government from paying farmers to plant woods on their land, and will devastate a new scheme for environmentally friendly farming in Wales.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) expects that it will be legally prevented from giving new financial help to green farming for at least six months.

The Brussels blunder will add fuel to the row between British farmers and Europe over beef, and give another sharp blow to an already desperate industry. Organic agriculture is just about the only aspect of farming that is thriving, and those who would benefit from the Welsh scheme are among the hardest hit farmers in Britain.

The funding standstill will particularly embarrass ministers as it will take effect while they are trying to pass legislation to protect the countryside.

Under the EU's new Rural Development Regulation, member states have to draw up plans for encouraging farmers to work in environmentally sensitive ways, which must then be approved by the commission.

In an extraordinary oversight, the regulation forbids new agreements with farmers between 31 December and the commission's approval of the plans. No one expects that to happen before July 2000. And as the commission has to go through the same process for all EU countries, approval could take much longer.

In the meantime, the move will freeze the expansion of organic farming in Britain just as it is taking off. Only 821 British farmers practised chemical-free agriculture two-and-a-half years ago: now there are well over 2,000. And by the cut off at the end of the year, 1,000 more will have started the change-over.

Yet less than 1 per cent of Britain's farmland produces organic food, compared with 10 per cent in Sweden and Austria. Over 70 per cent of organic produce sold in British shops is imported.

The expansion started when the Government set aside £24m over three years to help farmers over the difficult hurdle of converting their land. Yields fall when they stop using chemicals, but they are not allowed to sell their food as organic - and so get higher prices - for two years while the chemicals work their way out of the system.

Such was the demand that by September the money for both this year and next year had been allocated. Another £10m was made available last week, but this too is expected to be used by the end of the year.

During the stand-off, the Soil Association, Britain's main organic farming group, will be in the extraordinary position of advising farmers not to go organic. "This is going to bring the organic revolution screeching to a halt," said Phil Stocker, its senior agriculture development officer.

The EU blunder in Wales will be even more devastating. Some 300 hard-hit farmers are about to enter into agreements to plant woods and hedges, provide access to the public, restore traditional meadows and look after archaeological sites in exchange for Government help. Another 300 are due to join the scheme in April.

The halt will also affect a national scheme to help farmers plant woods on their land. And, if it goes past the summer, it will hit two other programmes to encourage farmers to adopt environmentally sensitive practices.

Charles Secrett, the executive director of Friends of the Earth, plans to write to the Prime Minister today, urging him to persuade the EU to convene a special meeting of ministers to resolve the crisis.