Organic Action Plan

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 17th October 2002.

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Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford 11:30 am, 17th October 2002

What progress she has made with the organic action plan; and if she will make a statement.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

Work is continuing on the 21 points in the organic action plan. It is a plan for the whole food chain, and a number of stakeholders, including retailers, have work in hand to take forward the plan's objectives. In DEFRA we are focusing on amendments to the organic farming scheme, on organic standards for the UK and on setting up a new organic advisory committee.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

I thank my right hon. and hon. Friends for their commitment on this issue and their positive responses to the organic targets campaign. We now have in place a plan and a significant target but no time frame. Will my right hon. Friend therefore introduce measures to make it necessary to achieve by 2010 the target of 70 per cent. of organic produce to come from British producers?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support for the organic action plan, which the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Mr. Morley, launched on 29 July. It has been universally well received and we certainly intend now to put it into place. As my hon. Friend Joan Ruddock has rightly said, there is a commitment to increase to 70 per cent. the market share of UK-grown organic products, which is more than double the current level of 30 per cent.

It is reasonable, however, that there is a time scale within which it must be achieved. It is not for the Government unilaterally to pick that deadline; clearly we must consult the industry and the British Retail Consortium about what is practicable. I chair the organic action plan group and, at the next meeting, I shall be raising the deadline as a major item on the agenda because I entirely agree that, for the plan to be successful, there must be not only a target but a deadline by which it must be achieved.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the National Assembly's decision this week to extend organic stewardship for farmers in Wales. It is a very welcome step. Is he aware of the threat that inadequate labelling of genetically modified food poses to the organic market, both for farmers and consumers? Will he take this opportunity to clarify at the European level the Government's position on what will happen with GM labelling and its relationship to an important and growing organic market in this country?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

Yes; it is an important issue. Let me make it clear that the Government strongly support a framework of labelling and traceability to the fullest extent that is practicable and workable. We support the proposal, which is probably being discussed at this very moment in Luxembourg, for a 1 per cent. threshold for the labelling of adventitious GM presence in non-GM products.

The issue to which the hon. Gentleman may be referring, which is much more difficult, is the labelling of GM-derived products. As I said, I am strongly sympathetic to the argument that we should have the fullest and most appropriate labelling for the consumer. The problem is that there is no distinguishability in DNA terms between GM derivatives and non-GM derivatives. For example, that is the case with highly refined maize oils. Apart from that logistical problem, if there is an insistence on labels, despite the issue of traceability and very long supply chains that often start outside the European Union, they could not be guaranteed and could be seriously misleading to the consumer. We must bear in mind that constraint.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Once again, news from a major retailer this week tells of another increase in sales of organic produce, the majority of which is provided by imports. Does my right hon. Friend, like me, see that farmers are holding back from converting to organic farming because they fear that by the time that they have converted, the price premium will be lost to them? Can his Department reassure farmers so as to persuade more of them to undertake the conversion?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

That is a very important issue. My hon. Friend is right that the major multiple retailers are being very helpful in trying to increase sales of organic products. Without seeking to make a commercial plug, I can say that Waitrose and Sainsbury's are seeking to increase import replacement in respect of organic products, which is very helpful.

On my hon. Friend's question about farmers converting, we have now extended the organic farming scheme to ensure that farmers who have converted can enter into five-year agreements to observe the environmental conditions of the scheme in return for payments. We have also very substantially increased conversion aid for top fruit production. For top fruit conversions, we are now proposing to pay #600 per hectare per year for the first three years and #30 for the next seven years. We are considering long-term payment commitments to encourage farmers to initiate conversion, with the assurance that they will continue long enough for conversion to be well worth while commercially.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

The Government constantly talk about their support for organic farming, but the reality is rather different. Some 70 per cent. of organic food is imported, only 4 per cent. of UK farmland is handed over to organic production and the funds available for conversion are wildly inadequate. The organic milk price is now below the non-organic price, so a number of milk producers are going the wrong way and switching back to non-organic production. As to GM, the truth is that this Government are going to allow the planting of GM maize crops within 200 m of organic ones, with the serious risk of cross-fertilisation. Does the Minister not understand that we do not need any more focus groups, initiatives, launches, leaflets or committees? He was on about committees again a moment ago, but what the people of this country want is decent, British-produced organic produce at a decent price.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

It behoves me to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box, as I believe that that was his first appearance there. If it is to be characteristic of all his appearances, I can see that we are going to have a lot of fun.

What the hon. Gentleman did not say is that while the total sums available for organic farming are still relatively small, they are hugely increasing on the level that we inherited. The amount provided this year is #20 million, but when his Government left office, it was half a million pounds, so it does not behove him to criticise us. That amount may not be enough, but I would have hoped that, as we have increased it 40 times in five years, we might get some congratulation from him. I am very keen to see an increase in UK-grown organic production. I repeat that the organic action plan, which the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Mr. Morley, launched two or three months ago, has gone down extremely well in all sections of the organic industry. We are pressing the issue as fast as the industry believes seriously possible.

On GM, the separation distances to which the hon. Gentleman referred were those operated by the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops, SCIMAC—the biotech industry—on the basis that they would be sufficient to prevent cross-contamination. In the event of three years of the farm scale evaluation trials, no organic crop has lost its certification as a result of the GM trials, but of course this is a serious issue, which we are further considering.

I repeat that #20 million is now going into organic—[Interruption.] Mr. Gray asked six or seven questions; I shall answer only three or four, but it he wants me to go on, I shall be glad to do so. We are putting #20 million into organic production this year. That figure will rise in the next two or three years to at least #23 million, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that that is a vast improvement on anything that his Government could do.