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Let us bend the rules, say organic farmers
Let us bend the rules, say organic farmers
Valerie Elliott, Countryside Editor 

Organic farmers have asked the Government for permission to take  a "holiday" from strict organic standards in an attempt to survive  the recession. 

The drastic move by organisations including the Soil Association  follows a dip in sales of organic produce and fears for the future of  Britain's 5,000 organic farmers. 

Sales of organic food slumped 10 per cent in the 12 weeks up to the  end of November, according to the latest figures from the consumer  researchers TNS. Overall food sales over the same period were up 6  per cent. 

Organic certification bodies, including the Soil Association, the  country's biggest campaigner for organic food and farming, asked  Hilary Benn, the Rural Affairs Secretary, last week for approval to  relax the rules for an indefinite period. They want their members to  be able to use conventional animal feed instead of organic food  concentrate, which costs double. Average organic feed prices are £320  a tonne compared with £160 a tonne for conventional feed.  The plan, which is also supported by Organic Farmers & Growers and  the Organic Food Federation, would still oblige farmers to follow 
other organic tenets such as low stocking densities, minimum use of  antibiotic treatments on animals and no use of fertilisers. But they  would give up the right to label their food "organic". The aim is to  give farmers some leeway during the harsh economic climate.  They want to establish new organic ground rules before the market  becomes even more depressed next year. 

A new generation of organic producers is also preparing to enter the  market. There are currently 400 extra farmers converting their land  to organic production and many will be offering organic produce for  the first time next year. The concern is that, if the rules on feed  are not eased, they will be left disenchanted and out of pocket if  sales flounder over the next couple of years. 

The move has been condemned by the Organic Research Centre, which  fears that organic "holidays" will confuse shoppers and lead to a  further sales slump. The centre, based at Elm Farm near Newbury,  Berkshire, which champions small producers, rails against the plan in  its latest bulletin. An editorial declares: "Not a trip to Lanzarote  or even the sun-kissed Seychelles - oh, no - this is a production  holiday from the crippling travails of being a 'proper' organic  farmer. You know, that minor inconvenience of rearing your stock on  feed that has not been soaked in pesticides or rendered down from  decaying livestock."  Richard Sanders, a centre spokesman, said: "Has UK organic  agriculture descended from high principle to flip-flop market  tracking? Any proper organic farmer should not be exposed anyway to  the vagaries of the feed market because they are supposed to be  growing their own on the farm."  Even though the Soil Association, of which the Prince of Wales is  patron, opened the issue for debate, it has provoked division within  its ranks. 

Liz Finlay, an egg and vegetable producer, who farms at Llanilar,  near Aberystwyth, said: "I feel there are already procedures laid  down in the rules for producers to change practices if they are in  any difficulty - provided they discuss it with their certifying body. 
But to stand up and announce an organic holiday gives out the wrong  message, especially to people who are farming organically for the  public good."  Phil Stocker, director of farmer and grower relations at the  association, said: "We have seen a dip in organic sales and  opportunistic buyers have drifted away, especially from beef, lamb,  pork, eggs and poultry. We are also getting close to a point where 
there is not much difference in prices for organic and conventional  produce.

Many businesses are struggling and suffering, and we are  trying to find a solution acceptable to everyone."  A spokeswoman at Clarence House confirmed that there were no plans  for Home Farm, part of the Prince's Highgrove estate in  Gloucestershire, to move away from organic feed. 
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural  Affairs said that it was willing to consider the plan if it complied  with EU rules.