Why organic needs conversion payments
In last month’s blog, we welcomed news from Scottish Government that Agri-Environment Climate Scheme funding for existing projects would be extended. However, we are still waiting to hear about financial support for new organic farmers – organic conversion payments.
Farmers considering converting to organic have a lot to think about – it’s a whole farm system that can result in an initial fall in yields as fields are taken out of production and into rotation. Yet the benefits support a whole raft of Scottish Government priorities.
Last year, Scotland declared a climate emergency, and announced a 75% emissions-reductions target by 2030, with agriculture currently the third biggest emitter. This year we have a new environment strategy with a vision for a restored and resilient natural environment.
Organic as a nature-friendly farming practice
Study after study shows organic farming increases biodiversity. In 2005, one found 50% more insect, plant and bird life on organic than conventional farms. In 2014, another found 30% more wildlife species. Organic farming tends to reduce energy use, due to the avoidance of synthetic fertilisers. And it lowers the risk of pollution in rivers and waterways. You can read all about it here.
The point is, organic farming is a well-defined and regularly inspected practice within nature and climate-friendly farming, or agroecology, that can help mitigate climate change and nature loss. Which is why Europe’s new Farm to Fork strategy includes the goal of achieving 25% of total farmland in organic management by 2030. While we languish at around two per cent, declining since 2011. Organic conversion is the mechanism that increases that percentage.
We’ve also seen, during the pandemic, people saying they value food more and becoming more interested in where their food comes from, seeking organic veg boxes and looking to buy directly from producers. Here again, when we’re talking about a green recovery and a food system that nurtures people, the environment and the economy, organic farming has a role to play.
Why do organic farmers need support?
So why do farmers need support, financial and otherwise, to get started with organic? It’s because of the ‘frontloading’ of effort to convert to organic – change your whole farming system, get natural systems working again if the ground has been used to chemicals, get soil nutrients cycling, bring the bugs and beasts back into the soil. This all takes time.
Organic dairy farmer David Finlay of Rainton Farm, Dumfries and Galloway, told us it took ten years to “get the hang of” organic before he and his wife Wilma could run the profitable business they have today. He said: “In most farming systems you keep the sheep in the same field year after year because you can drench them - stop the parasites with drugs, put a bolus into the calf or lamb. But in an organic system you need to manage the farm so the parasites don’t become a threat. We don’t keep the lambs or calves in the same field two years running and that breaks the cycle and stops the parasite building up. I use grazing management and make a note of where they were year to year.”
Denise Walton, who took over a depleted arable farm in 1993, says she “couldn’t afford” to go organic, until funding for conversion was introduced under CAP reforms in 2002.
As Ken Porter, who farms 1500 hectares of mixed livestock organically at Tanlawhill, Dumfriesshire, says: “We would have come out of organic without continued payments. We are doing a great job for the environment – we’re not using nitrogen, some of the fields look a bit weedy but they’re full of wildflowers – ecologically we’re leaps and bounds ahead. We’re doing a great job for the environment but, apart from the variable organic premium, we don’t get any monetary value for that. We want to do the right thing but we’re driven by economics, like everyone else.”
Support payments make it financially viable for farmers to convert to organic. But they are more than that. They are also signals of support from government – support for the transition to climate and nature-friendly farming that we need for our future food security. Because food production that doesn’t sustain the environment is not secure.