Page last updated at 05:01 GMT, Saturday, 31 January 2009

Farmers seeking organic 'holiday'

By Keith Doyle
BBC News

Noel Marsh
Noel Marsh has spent two years and a lot of money going organic

Farmers have approached ministers seeking a relaxation in organic rules to help them survive the recession.

The BBC has seen figures showing a demand for organic food has fallen. The move would mean farmers could cut costs without losing their organic status.

Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, said farmers could put animals on non-organic feed without their land losing its organic status.

Sales of organic foods have plummeted by 13% in the last three months.

The Soil Association has already asked Rural Affairs Secretary Hilary Benn to consider the benefits of relaxing the rules for an indefinite period while it consults other bodies.

Mr Melchett said: "Over a dozen other certifying groups are backing the proposal which would allow meat and dairy farmers to use non-organic feed, typically costing half the price.

People are buying less organic milk and the product we are selling is not achieving the price it should
Organic dairy farmer Noel Marsh
"The animals would not be sold as organic but farmers would not have to go through the lengthy and expensive process of returning their land to being organic when the economy picks up."

Dairy farmer Noel Marsh has spent two years and hundreds of thousands of pounds to make his farm organic, but is living through tough times.

He told BBC Breakfast: "People are buying less organic milk and more conventional.

"And the product we are selling is not achieving the price it should at the moment, with feed costs higher than we have ever known them."

Mr Marsh is undecided on whether the proposal would work for him but thinks other organic farmers would benefit.

But Lawrence Woodward of the Organic Research Centre rejected the idea as "muddled" and "arguably stupid".

Cows at Noel Marsh's farm
Organic milk is no longer selling at a premium, say farmers
He said: "It undermines the view that consumers have about the integrity of organic product, about the fact that organic farmers are principled producers.

"Their farming system is based on principle, that the system that we have developed is a system that really delivers these things and every time we talk about things like taking holidays from principles it undermines that belief and that integrity."

Renee Elliott, founder of the Planet Organic chain, said: "Consumer trust is crucial. It's a very complicated, very well regulated mechanism for producing the best quality food. This cannot affect that."

The National Farmers Union has not yet endorsed the proposal, saying it wants to be certain that anything which helps one group of farmers does not harm another.

And the Government is biding its time, saying it wants more evidence showing just how bad the situation is for organic farmers and how much support the Soil Association has.

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