The Lazy Man of Europe

During our 2011 conference, we are releasing 'The Lazy Man of Europe', a new report which asks the government to wake up to what Europe can teach the UK about backing organic food and farming.

The global production of organic food is set to grow substantially, with the organic market frequently cited as one of the most significant growth markets in the food industry.

This potential is demonstrated in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany and Switzerland where sales of organic food continued to grow in 2009, despite the recession. In the UK, sales fell, although they are now recovering. A range of factors may explain the recent decline of the UK organic market compared to our European neighbours, but the passive role of successive UK governments in supporting organic food and farming is one of the reasons commonly given.

The aim of this short report is two-fold: to demonstrate how and why governments across Europe are supporting organic food and farming; and to launch a discussion to consider what the UK government and the organic movement could and should be doing to support organic growth.

We have found that most European countries have acted confidently to normalise and champion organic food and farming as a pioneering, sustainable and environmentally friendly way to produce food.

In contrast, UK governments have been diffident, if not lazy on the subject. When it comes to thinking in a truly sustainable way about the future of food and farming, successive UK governments have preferred to sit back and snooze.

The new Coalition Government has taken some tentative, positive steps, such as cancelling the last Government's publicly-funded, pro-GM propaganda consultation, to have been carried out by the Food Standards Agency. The new Agriculture Minister, Jim Paice, has said recently that organic principles lead the way on sustainable farming, and that organic farming should be fostered for this reason.

As this report shows, other leading European governments are doing far more than ours to advance organic food and farming. Most of these initiatives involve shifts in policies and priorities, not new funding. The recommendations listed below, all implemented by our European neighbours, provide our Government with a list of the actions needed to deliver on the Coalition's pledge – 'to be the greenest government ever'.

A recipe for success?

Each of the case studies in the report demonstrates how our Government might better support organic food and farming. As a starting point for a conversation about the proper role for government in this area, the Soil Association is suggesting the following actions:
  • The UK Government should welcome the organic market as an important growth area for the UK economy, recognise the vital role played by organic farmers and food businesses in creating this growth, and support organic businesses with the same enthusiasm as with other small but rapidly growing areas of the economy.
  • The UK Government should introduce a crossdepartmental food strategy which recognises the role of organic and agro-ecological farming in producing food in a resource-constrained world. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) should make a start on catching up with their Dutch opposite numbers by itself using a minimum of 30% organic food.
  • The Department of Health should offer the same advice to consumers as the Swedish National Food Administration, to help consumers make both healthy and environmentally sustainable food choices, including advice to eat organic, local and seasonal food.
  • The UK Government should endorse the Food for Life Catering Mark, and ensure that public food procurement standards meet at least the Food for Life silver standard, which guarantees the use of seasonal, freshly prepared produce and some use of organic food.
  • Changes to Pillar 1 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments should include a core element of support for organic farming and ensure that all member states, including the UK would gain the multiple benefits which a strong organic agriculture sector would provide. The 'greenest ever' UK Government should take a lead in Europe and support this change.
  • Defra should follow the German example and re-establish a dedicated research budget to provide practical solutions to the problems organic farmers and businesses face. Defra should actively encourage knowledge sharing and the exchange of best practice in farming, within and between non-organic and organic agriculture.
  • The UK Government should match any industry funding of generic promotional initiatives for organic in order to maximise the UK's use of available EU funding, and use the market to deliver public benefits.

Read the report