My Lords, the Government would like to see UK producers meeting more of the demand for organic food. The action plan to develop organic food and farming in England aims for the UK-produced share of the indigenous food market to have increased to 70 per cent by 2010, which would be similar to that for conventionally produced foods in a similar category. Good progress is being made towards that end.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. What in her view is preventing British farmers from fulfilling most of the growth in consumer demand for organic food in this country? Is it, for example, the high cost of conversion? Is it uncertainty about the future of the market? Or is it the lack of a level playing field, with non-UK producers being required to meet lower standards than their UK counterparts?
My Lords, there were quite a lot of questions there, but I will seek to answer them all. We work closely with the retailers. Obviously, we work particularly closely with the farmers because of the importance of helping them to cope with a situation in which inevitably there will be fluctuations in supply and demand. Organic food that comes from the rest of the European Union must meet the same standards as ours because the level is applied throughout the European Union. There are financial arrangements to help people to convert and additional help for organic farmers who are going on to the new scheme.
My Lords, yes. That is why we want to work in close co-operation with our own producers to ensure that they are not treated unfairly. We also want to ensure that we do not in any way impose—it would be illegal and unethical—unreasonable tariff and import barriers. I answered the original Question in the context of indigenous food. At the moment it is not possible to grow, for example, pineapples or mangos in the UK, so we are talking sometimes about totally different food areas.
My Lords, if the Government are concerned to base their policy on scientific evidence, will they not recognise that organic farming is essentially based on a myth—the basic scientific howler that synthetic chemicals are bad and natural chemicals are good? Every time that the claims made for organic food have been examined by an independent body, such as the Advertising Standards Authority or the Food Standards Agency, they have been rejected. In those circumstances, would it not be wise for the Government and more ethical for supermarkets not to promote a product that commands premium prices and whose extra value is illusory?
My Lords, I am interested to know what position the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, takes on the subject.
I am aware that the work that has been done to make comparisons between nutritional standards has certainly not proved the organic case. I am also aware that a great many people prefer to have food that has not been subject to chemical treatment as part of its growth. To a certain extent, it is a matter for the individual consumer, and the demand for organic produce is increasing.
My Lords, although I entirely agree with the Minister that it is a matter of customer choice whether to buy organic food, is it not also the case that a certain amount of research, particularly that done in America, has shown that there are pesticide residues in the blood of little children? In view of the fact that a child's immune and central nervous systems are not complete when they are born, is it not wise that some parents choose organic food?
My Lords, I get the awful feeling that I am caught between a rock and a hard place here. I have not been briefed on the research to which the noble Countess refers, so I do not have a government evaluation of it. However, I have read information about the research. It would be a very unwise person who, without the benefit of hard scientific data, argued in this field with the noble Countess.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the proposition advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, was put much more succinctly in the old farming saying that organic food is produced by the combination of muck, mystery and magic? What proportion of UK food consumption is provided by UK organic food production?
My Lords, my recollection is that it is about 1 per cent, but I shall write to my noble friend if I am wrong. Feelings run high on the subject, and the noble Countess is not alone in being worried about whether pesticide residues get into people through the food chain. That is a concern. My noble friend knows more about farming production than I do, but there is certainly growing consumer demand for food that has been produced with minimal or zero levels of chemical addition during its growth.
My Lords, most of us applaud the sentiments expressed by my noble friend Lord MacLaurin, but does the noble Baroness agree that such objectives should apply to all food, not just to organic food? To that effect, what are the Government doing to reduce the impact on our producers of cheap imported food that does not comply with the same statutory environmental and animal health standards as are imposed on our producers?
My Lords, we work closely with other governments in the European Union to ensure that European Union standards apply. In the context of my earlier reply on developing countries and their produce, we will seek to ensure that our retailers are not disadvantaged because of differential standards.
I understand that bringing indigenous organic food production up to 70 per cent will match the figure for non-organic indigenous food production. We at all times seek to work—for example, through government procurement—to ensure that the time taken to get food from the supplier to the plate is as short as possible. We work very closely with suppliers through a variety of means, including supporting farmers' markets, to ensure that where possible—for example, in school meals—food is procured locally.