What role livestock marts?
Phil Stocker - 23 October 2009
Last week finished with a couple of days in Aberystwyth, one of which was at the Organic Centre Wales Producers’ Conference.
I was asked to speak in one of the workshops on the Soil Association’s position on livestock marts and their role in selling organic livestock. Our standards allow producers to sell store and breeding animals through organically registered marts, but do not allow stock going to slaughter to be sold live. Hence, in the presence of two market auctioneers and representatives of a couple of certification bodies, I found myself defending the reasons behind our standards.
The irony of this wasn’t lost on me: around 10 years ago I spoke at a Soil Association conference where I made the case for the selling of store and breeding stock through certified marts to help build better connections between producers. This was at a time when we were seeing a rapid expansion of grassland and upland farms and they were bringing a new dimension to the structure of organic farming in the UK.
The reason that the subject of fatstock and marts is coming up now is largely in response to another phase of growth in grassland and livestock production, bringing with it a new wave of producers who have traditionally sold through livestock marts – and who would like to continue selling in this way.
Now while I’m not responsible for setting our standards – we have our independent standards committees and Board for this process – I can think of several reasons why live fatstock sales would not be good for the organic sector and why it doesn’t fit well with the organic principles. And this was the case I put forward.
The principles for organic farming and food fall under four main headings: health, ecology, fairness and care. While store stock have the chance to overcome the stress involved in attending a mart – loading, transport, unloading, penning, mixing, waiting, loading, transport, unloading – a stock destined for slaughter do not. They can arrive at the slaughterhouse stressed and with high adrenalin levels. For me, this risks undermining our principle of health as well as risking a reduction in the quality of the finished product.
Then there is the issue of trade. Given the structure of the organic market, the main buyers of finished stock would be agents acting on behalf of the supermarket processors. The fact is that the vast majority of organic stock is currently sold direct or direct through producer groups and co-ops. This structure has enabled us to ensure that, through negotiation, the costs of production can influence the price, and a number of dedicated organisations have worked tirelessly to achieve this. I believe this structure has served us well.
In a time of surplus organic lamb, the proposals to auction finished stock (bidded on by a small number of buyers) would only have one impact – to bring the price down for everyone. I cannot see how anyone can suggest that this type of trading is fair – especially for those who have chosen to take a longer term view and are supporting the more co-operative approach.
At the end of the day these are only my views. While I can think of plenty of producers who would probably support me, I would be interested in hearing your perspective. Come and raise this – and other issues – at the remaining producer roadshow meetings if you can.