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Expensive feed burden for organic farmers

Organic farmers in the United Kingdom 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% 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%.

Organic certification bodies, including the Soil Association, 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.

New organic applicants
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.

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."

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