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Organic has a lot more to give

Organic has a lot more to give

On Monday 23rd April we hosted a consultation event with Defra. This was our message to them. 

The Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) is in the middle of its biggest ever consultation. As we prepare for life outside the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy, Defra has produced the consultation paper –Health and Harmony– to ask the public, industry and NGOs what the future of food, farming and the environment should look like, and what Government’s role in this is.

This week we co-hosted a consultation event with Defra at the Sheepdrove organic farm in Berkshire, bringing together farmers and others linked to the industry with Defra officials to have their say and hear directly from George Eustice, the farming minister.

Organic in everything but name

The consultation paper contains a lot that we like. From where we sit at the heart of an organic movement, its focus on nature, soils, ecology and care, on integrated approaches to farming and the land, and the title’s reference to  health, all strike us as really rather organic.

For all this strong alignment with what the organic movement has championed, and organic farmers have helped make possible, the word ‘organic’ and references to the part the organic market can play are conspicuous by being almost absent. This is true of the consultation document itself and the Secretary of State’s speeches.

 combine harvester in a field

Bridging the gaps

We’ve been scratching our heads as to why. Defra appreciates that organic farmers have pioneered systems that other farmers now use. Also that ministers and officials recognise the strong evidence that these systems deliver public benefits.

So is Government’s coyness about organic down to concern that mentioning it is divisive or exclusive? That you can only swallow organic hook, line and sinker. That there are no half measures. That if you’re with organic, you’re against everything else.

One of the points that came through from the consultation event, in a room where many but by no means all of us had some connection to organic farming and food, was how far that is from the truth.

The organic movement and sector has worked together with others, helped to lift the whole industry and set new norms. We’ve done this – and continue to do so – with other schemes, with farmers of all stripes, and with other sectors from public health to forestry.

We have so much common ground. Through the Innovative Farmers network we put farmers in the driving seat of research and knowledge development. Agricology, led by the Organic Research Centre, shares farming know how. With Food for Life we aim to make good food the easy choice for everyone, whoever and wherever they are, working with schools, hospitals and care settings and bringing people closer to the food that they eat.

The lesson from other countries like Germany and Denmark – where organic accounts for 5-10% of food instead of 1.5% here – is that organic has a lot more to give. It can grow significantly and inclusively, and it benefits farming and the public more as it does so. Yet it can only do so with Government’s backing.

 Riverford Farmers

The beginning of the conversation

Defra are keen to highlight that this consultation is the beginning of a conversation, and there is no doubt more to come, with talk of a national food policy, a draft animal welfare bill and the Secretary of State linking public health and food production. Despite the urgent need for certainty in our future agricultural policies, this consultation is one step on a long road.

Our key message to policy makers on Monday was this:

  • That organic farming and the organic market can help achieve many of the aspirations Government has set out – they are an asset in this enterprise.
  • While organic certification won’t suit every farmer or consumer, helping the organic sector to thrive on a par with those countries where it has up to 10% of farming and food is a help to progress right across agriculture.
  • This can be done in ways that are simple, practical and inclusive.

Have Your Voice Heard

Throughout February - May the Government ran a consultation on the future of agricultural policy. You can find a summary of our 10 key points in our response here.

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