UK is ‘lazy man of Europe’ when it comes to organics by Mark Kinver

9/2/2012 BBC The UK government is not doing enough to support and promote organic food and farming, a report says.The Soil Association said sales continued to grow in other European nations during the recession, while UK sales fell by 13.6% in 2009.

A government spokeswoman said there was scope for UK organic producers to grow if they became more competitive.

The findings were published at the launch of the Association’s annual conference in Manchester.

Peter Melchett, policy director for the Soil Association - which operates the UK’s largest organic accreditation scheme - described the fall in sales, after years of continuous growth, as “really frustrating”.

“All of the other major European markets continued to grow, so this country’s farmers are losing a good business opportunity thanks to a sort of Neanderthal attitude,” he told BBC News.

“The government really haven’t been anything like as supportive in the UK as other governments have been in other European countries.”

He added that consumers in other EU nations had “better access to good information about the relative merits of different farming systems and food”.

The report, The Lazy Man of Europe, said that once consumers had accurate information about organic farming and food, then they increased their purchases of such goods.

“The opportunity is there for organic suppliers to build their market share by being competitive and customer-focused”
Defra spokeswoman

 ”Governments have a big part to play in providing that sort of information,” suggested Mr Melchett.

The report recommended a number of actions for the government to take, including:

welcoming the organic market as an important growth area for the nation’s economy,
introduction of a cross-departmental food strategy that recognises the role of organic farming,
re-establishment of a dedicated research budget to address problems faced by the organic sector, and
matching industry funding to promote organic food and farming.
Mr Melchett added that the UK was more “ideologically opposed” to the nature-based farming system, adding that government agencies and scientific and farming bodies were also not supportive.

He was critical of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) which, he said, had “gone out of its way to knock organic food at the slightest opportunity”.

“The equivalent agency in Sweden is working with voluntary conservation bodies to encourage people to eat organic food because it is good for wildlife,” he observed.

Nicky Stonebridge, of Lower Hurst Farm in the Peak District, explains how they make their organic business work
In 2009, the FSA commissioned an independent review to examine whether there was any substance to claims that organic food was healthier than ordinary food.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concluded that there was little difference in nutritional value and no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic produce.

The findings were based on a review of 50 years’ worth of relevant scientific literature.

At the time, the Soil Association was critical of the findings, saying the criteria of the review meant that a number of scientific studies that did show a difference were not considered.

A later review of the findings by the General Advisory Committee on Science (GACS) upheld the report’s conclusions, saying the researchers had followed “good practice” and had been subject to peer-review.

On its website, the FSA said it was “neither for nor against organic food”.

Organic produce accounts for about two percent of the UK’s total food sales “There are many different reasons why consumers choose to buy organic food,” it stated.

“These can include, for example, concern for the environment and animal welfare. Eating organic food is one way to reduce consumption of pesticide residues and additives.”

An FSA spokeswoman told BBC News that a reorganisation of responsibilities in mid-2010 means that policy on nutrition is now handled by the Department of Health.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) oversees the production of organic foods and the administration of organic schemes.

Mr Melchett said that if the coalition government wished to achieve its goal of becoming the “greenest government ever”, it had to recognise the role of organic farming.

“Other governments have recognised that organic food is not dependent on imported fossil fuels and phosphates, both of which are running out, in order to produce food,” he said.

“The sort of food production that the UK agricultural establishment, scientists and government support is crucially dependent upon oil to make artificial fertilisers, and on imported and mined phosphates.”

Responding to the Soil Association’s report, a Defra spokeswoman said: “Organic farming is one of the pioneering approaches to sustainable production and remains influential, but it’s not the only one and it would not be right to increase taxpayer support for one particular sector.

“Many consumers make some purchases of organic produce,” she added.

“It commands a premium price, but it represents less than 2% of the market. The opportunity is there for organic suppliers to build their market share by being competitive and customer-focused.”

Environment Secretary of State Caroline Spelman is scheduled to address the Association’s annual conference, Food and the Big Society, which is being held in Manchester until Thursday.
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