Organic farmers in England got a huge boost earlier this month when farming minister Ben Bradshaw announced in Defra’s Organic Action Plan Two Years On report that they would receive an annual payment of £60 per hectare - twice the rate paid to ordinary farmers.
The incentive to encourage farmers to convert reflects Whitehall’s desire to see consumers buy British when they buy organic. Indeed, Defra wants to see the amount of organic produce that is grown domestically increase from the 44% it stood at in 2002/2003 to 70% by 2010 - good news for Britain’s organic farmers, you would think.
But as the Defra report was published, a survey by farmers’ group Organic Farmers & Growers revealed that three-quarters of members canvassed rated their profitability as low or borderline or said that their businesses were unviable. So how realistic is the target? More to the point, is organic really such an attractive option for farmers?
Next Saturday sees the start of Organic Week, organised by the Soil Association. At least two national newspapers are expected to carry supplements dedicated to the organic market - evidence that it is now firmly part of the mainstream grocery offer.
Yet the Organic Farmers & Growers survey points to a number of serious issues for the farmers who go down the organics route. Martin Cottingham, marketing director at the Soil Association, says: “The prospects for growth are good and we would go along with Defra’s figures. However, the OF&G survey highlights an important issue. At the production end of the supply chain there are organic farmers who are finding it a tight squeeze.”
One problem is the multiples’ low price agenda. Cottingham agrees they have done much to encourage growth in the sector. “We have looked at the way organics are sold in other countries and nowhere are they as widely available as in the UK. The big retailers deserve a lot of credit for that.”
However, many farmers in the survey said they thought supermarket buyers had a responsibility to pay better prices for organic produce. Cottingham warns: “We have a cheap food culture in this country and if this were to spread to the organic sector it would be an unhealthy development.”
The low pricing agenda has thrown up another issue for domestic producers - a tendency on the part of some multiples to source organic produce overseas.
Cottingham asserts that organic shoppers prefer food that is produced in the UK and says they are very conscious of food miles, adding that if organics were traded as a cheap, global commodity, these consumers would be turned off and the market would be threatened.
Tesco and Asda have both come under fire from the Soil Association for failing to source enough British produce. Sainsbury, on the other hand, has been named its Organic Supermarket of the Year three years on the trot. It now sources 65% of all its organic food and drink from Britain.
Alison Austin, head of product safety and integrity, says: “We have a strong ‘buy British first’ policy. Our research shows the British aspect is very important to our customers. It has become a key part of what they see as the organic package.”
There’s no doubting the support from both consumers and politicians for organic. John McGill, of political consultants Grayling, says wryly: “Politically, organics are quite popular and ministers are always trying to be seen to be moving the sector forward.”
But, while the payments from Defra will help, going organic remains a big gamble for farmers. Those who are concerned by the multiples’ low price strategies may well decide not to embark on the lengthy conversion process.