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Organic Beef Farming

Volume 403: debated on Wednesday 9 April 2003

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11 am

Thank you for ensuring that this matter is debated, Mr. Benton. Even though it is Budget day, it is obviously a matter that will concern many people in the country and certainly in my constituency. It is always a pleasure to see that the Minister for the Environment is present, because that means that we shall have a high-quality debate, albeit a short one, and I know that I shall get a considered, careful and sensible response.

Organic food has become synonymous with sustaining good health, better-tasting food and food free from harmful pesticides. An increasing number of consumers believe, therefore, that buying organic will reap them personal health dividends. Astonishingly, 70 per cent. of organic food sold in our shops and supermarkets originates from outside the United Kingdom, where the Demeter label, which signifies organic, is not recognised and where the Soil Association's tough requirements cannot be enforced. As a result, how do we know that organic crops grown in the third world and south American countries have never been sprayed with chemicals or that their animals have not been fed with additives? We do not. That is why organic food produced by British farmers is extremely significant. We have the Soil Association and the Demeter label, which ensure the highest standards and that the source and quality of the food that we choose to buy and eat is clearly stated.

I am most fortunate to have in my constituency of 'Totnes a number of splendid organic enterprises. As the Minister probably knows, Cranks restaurant was founded in Totnes. There is the famous Riverford farm, which pioneered organic food several decades ago, and Tor Dean farm is another outlet. A great deal of organic food is grown on the land and we have the wonderful sight of a number of pure South Devon cattle grazing on the luscious grass on the Sharpham estate on the banks of the River Dart, surrounded by spectacular countryside. The herd of 80 organic South Devon cattle has a pedigree stretching back nearly a century. It has been totally free of any disease, whether it be BSE or foot and mouth. In fact, no foot and mouth cases were identified in my constituency, which was miraculously spared that devastating disease. The herd is in prime condition and is the pride and joy of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Smith, who own it. The cattle have been reared in an idyllic environment, which in the past has resulted in the most spectacular meat, for which there is considerable demand both locally and nationally.

Since April 2002, however, the Smiths have been faced with an insurmountable problem, which is why I brought this matter to the House. There is no abattoir within a 150-mile radius of their farm in Totnes that is able to slaughter their cattle under the beef assurance scheme—a Government-funded scheme. As a result, the animals have to be sent for incineration; they are condemned to be burned because of new rules and regulations introduced last April. Those rules compel abattoirs to slaughter beef assurance scheme cattle separately, which creates a logistical problem for most abattoirs because they are forced to stop the line to process them. That requires the abattoirs to have separate storage space, as well as everything else. In effect, two parallel lines or abattoirs are needed for there to be sufficient space for the separation.

Before the new regulation, the Smiths had no problem at all. Langs' abattoir in Ashburton, a long-established and well regarded slaughterhouse in my constituency, was happy to take the organic cattle, but now it does not have the refrigeration space necessary to accommodate them if tests are to be carried out.

In answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled on 13 January about the position in the west country, the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life stated:
"Regarding the unavailability of abattoirs to slaughter under the Beef Assurance Scheme, all licensed abattoirs are permitted to slaughter Beef Assurance Scheme over thirty month cattle, provided they are willing to facilitate their testing for BSE. On receipt of a negative test result, the carcase must be sent to a licensed cutting plant that is separately licensed to remove the vertebral column and dorsal root ganglia before the meat is released for human consumption. All licensed cutting plants are free to apply to the Food Standards Agency for an additional licence to remove vertebral column. It is a simple process, no fee is charged, and all have been encouraged to apply."
Significantly, the right hon. Gentleman continued:
"None have done so in the south west peninsula."—[Official Report, 13 January 2003; Vol. 397, c. 370W.]
EC regulation 999/2001 lays down rules for the prevention, control and eradication of certain "specified risk materials". Annex V of the regulation specifically includes within the definition of specified risk material
"the vertebral column, including dorsal ganglia, of bovine animals aged over 30 months."
Paragraph 3 of the annex states that specified material
"must be stained with a dye and, as appropriate, marked with a marker immediately on removal, and completely destroyed".
The regulations are part of EU-wide food regulations.

The Minister drew my attention to R.M. Gearing, a cutting plant in Newton Abbot Is the Minister saying that Langs' can slaughter Mr. Smith's organic cattle without separate lines and refrigeration, and that, immediately after they are killed, they can he taken to R. M. Gearing for finishing? Langs' understands that it cannot do that. Its space is confined and, more important, it does not have the money to set up two parallel lines or to provide separate refrigeration. No Government grants are available, so there is no way that Langs' can do that. What is Langs' supposed to do?

To compound all those difficulties, the Smiths are obliged to pay the Government more than £300 a year to be eligible for the beef assurance scheme, which is absolutely essential to those who breed organic cattle. To satisfy the beef assurance scheme criteria, the Smiths had to prove that they had a specialist beef herd with no dairy cattle for the past seven years—they have proven that; that their herd had been established for at least four years, unless it comprised of animals from other beef assurance scheme herds—it has been established for nearly 100 years, not four; that their herd had had no confirmed cases of BSE—no BSE or anything else for 100 years; that no feed containing mammalian meat or bonemeal had been fed to their animals during the past seven years—they have proven that; and that during the past four years no concentrates had been fed to their animals unless from a mill that had not used mammalian meat or bonemeal, or unless home mixed with no mammalian meat and bonemeal—they have proven that. The Smiths passed all the tests with flying colours.

The beef assurance scheme is principally designed for organic farmers because it allows cattle aged over 30 months and under 42 months to be slaughtered and sold. Otherwise, any animal over 30 months would go for incineration. The scheme was set up specifically to help people in the Smiths' situation, simply because organic cattle take longer than ordinary cattle to finish—using natural methods, it takes longer for them to grow to their optimum size. The South Devon is a large breed. Cattle are finished on grass and need an extra 12 months to reach their optimum size.

I gather from the Smiths that feeding their cattle on an organic mix of cereals, maize and oats—a kind of concentrate—would help accelerate their growth. However, the cost of such organic cereal is excessive unless one can grow it on one's own land, in which case it becomes a feasible alternative for speeding up the growth of the animals.

Unfortunately, the land on the banks of the Dart has very thin soil, which makes it impossible for the organic mixture to be grown there. Buying it in is not financially viable. Animals would not be caught by the 30-month rule, but it would be totally financially unrealistic. However, the cost of feeding the animals on an imported mixture of cereals would far exceed the price that the Smiths could receive for each animal, so that is not an option either.

Where are the Smiths supposed to go if there is no local abattoir with sufficient facilities to slaughter organic cattle under the beef assurance scheme? There is an abattoir in Gloucestershire and another in Penzance, but both would require a round trip of 300 miles in a day. Not only is such a journey costly in time and fuel, not to mention man hours, but it would put a considerable strain on the animals. As Mr. Smith said, it would be physically exhausting, financially crippling and totally unfeasible, bearing in mind that the farm is small and intends to slaughter only half a dozen cattle a month.

The result is horrifying. Mr. Smith's animals are condemned to be burned for no good reason. He is disheartened, frustrated and deeply depressed. He is proud of his animals and has an enviable track record, but he has been given so much false information about what is and is not possible that time has passed and he has been unable to make any arrangements for the cattle to be slaughtered legally. The abattoir licensing system introduced last April happened so quickly that Mr. Smith does not believe that the Government understood the consequences of the regulations and the effect that they would have on farmers like him who belong to the beef assurance scheme.

Can we imagine a more appalling waste than burning outstanding organic meat and importing dubious organic meat from tens of thousands of miles away, which creates no jobs for our farmers and no work for our people? The regulations are similar to the obscene common fisheries policy, under which fishermen are forced to throw perfectly good quality fish back into the sea dead if they inadvertently land them in excess of their quotas. To throw more fish back into the sea dead than one lands at port is an obscene abuse of nature and the food that it produces to feed us.

I am not sure why other European countries fare better than we do in the organic business. They seem to accommodate the current rules and regulations in a more acceptable way than we do. Imagine a French farmer who possesses 80 wonderful, prized animals being forced to send his herd for incineration because of EU rules and regulations. That simply would not happen. In the case that I described, a herd will be destroyed for all time. There will be few or no South Devon organic cattle left if the Minister does not find a solution to this problem. If an answer is not found, it will be another example of the Government failing to recognise the need to sustain our organic farmers, and inadvertently driving another nail into the coffin of the farming community.

What should the Government be doing? To put it simply, they should assist abattoirs to provide what is required to service organic farms in their area. More farmers would diversify into organic farming if such facilities were available. There is money in organic food. In Austria, 8 per cent. of the land is used for organic purposes. In Italy, the figure is 7 per cent. In Britain, it is less than half that. Why cannot the Government get behind farmers such as the Smiths and help them to survive? They do not want handouts; they want an opportunity to sell their wares legally.

A couple of months ago, Sir John Krebs, chairman of the Food Standards Agency, hinted that the over-30 month rule might soon be relaxed. If that is the case, presumably the distinction between organic beef assurance scheme cattle and non-organic cattle would disappear. Will the Minister say whether there is any foundation of hope about what Sir John Krebs said about the relaxation of the rule?

The Government appear by default to have allowed obstacles to emerge to prevent farmers from rearing traditional South Devon cattle for our home consumption. The beef assurance scheme in the Smiths' case is a sick joke. The Government have provided the Smiths with a great deal of information, but much of it has been misleading. Mr. Smith's 80 prized cattle, which could have attracted about £800 each if slaughtered and sold for consumption, are worth less than £350 each if they go for incineration. Instead of a herd value of £64,000, Mr. Smith would be lucky to achieve £28,000 in total because of the new rules and regulations.

Are the Government simply going to stand by and see another farmer forced into poverty because of their inability to see the direct effect of the new red tape introduced a year ago, and allow it to wreak the sort of devastation that could lead to a prized herd of organic South Devon cattle becoming a thing of the past?

11.14 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on making such a well documented, detailed and persuasive case. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, his constituents, will be proud of him. He could not have raised their problems more pointedly or more effectively.

I shall start by saying something about the viability of organic beef farming and then deal with the more detailed issues relating to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I do not think that I can answer all the questions, but I will certainly complement in correspondence what I do say.

The United Kingdom market for organic products is generally pretty buoyant and expanding, as the hon. Gentleman said, and we all wish it to expand considerably further. The market has increased in value from £40 million in 1987 to more than £150 million in 1994, to £250 million in 1998 and to £400 million in 2000. We reckon that it is currently worth about £950 million—almost £1 billion. Imports from Europe and further afield, particularly of cereals and fresh produce, account for much of the supply.

All the available evidence therefore suggests that, for the foreseeable future, the UK organic market will continue to expand. The Government are not just watching while that happens, but taking steps to ensure that it does. There is considerable opportunity for import substitution. Incidentally, the hon. Gentleman talked about whether imported organic products necessarily met the high standards in this country. Such products must be specifically authorised on the basis of an assessment by the UK register of organic food standards—UKROFS—of the equivalence of standards. In some cases, the European Commission authorises such products, but they are not allowed into the country without checks.

We are anxious to see import substitution. Our target is for the proportion of organic food supplied by UK producers to increase from its current low level of about 30 per cent. of organic produce consumed in the UK to at least 70 per cent. by 2010. That would be broadly in line with the UK's share of conventional produce. Of course there are problems of seasonality. Some products will never be commercially developed in this country, given our climate. However, local production is fully in keeping with sustainability objectives and the wider ethos of the organic movement, and UK farmers and producers could do a good deal more to meet the demands of UK consurners.

Consumers want a wide range of safe, quality foods, produced to high animal welfare standards— the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument about abattoirs is relevant in this respect—with minimum artificial input, at affordable prices and with year-round availability. That is a pretty testing objective. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the wider benefits that organic production methods can bring to the environment in terms of soil health and fertility, biodiversity and the wider landscape. I am extremely keen that we do more to promote public awareness of those benefits through the internet and more direct Government support.

Many farmers and growers in the UK have developed profitable businesses by supplying the market with organically grown produce. Mr. and Mrs. Smith have particular problems, which I shall come to, but many farmers are doing well. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that some farmers and growers might miss a good opportunity if they do not give serious thought to organic production. That may help them to maintain or improve their incomes. When combined with other, social benefits of organic farming production, conversion can provide real economic opportunities.

The hon. Gentleman rightly asked what the Government were doing. We are committed to providing increased funds and assistance to those farmers wanting to convert through the organic farming scheme. Funding for that totals £140 million during the lifetime of the England rural development programme, which is £22 million to £23 million per year. The scheme, which is entirely voluntary, offers payments to farmers to aid them in converting to organic farming, and, from next month, to help existing organic farmers to continue farming in an environmentally beneficial way. Since the scheme was introduced in 1999, some 2,250 farmers have committed approximately 74,000 hectares under the scheme—still a relatively small amount compared with the cultivated space in this country, but it will steadily grow.

Devon, I am glad to say, has the second largest area of land in the organic farming scheme after Northumberland, with nearly 15,000 hectares and a total claim value of nearly £1 million. Organic farming is a big deal in Devon.

The number of organic beef animals slaughtered during 2002 also increased substantially, by 80 per cent., from 5,000 animals the year be fore last to 9,000 last year. The wholesale value of UK-produced organic meat increased by more than 70 per cent., from £22 million to £39 million over the same period. Those substantial increases reflect the considerable increase in the output of organic meat during the year. The organic beef price for autumn 2002 was between 220p to 230p per kg compared with a conventional beef price of about 175p. Those figures are taken from the Soil Association's report on organic Food and farming.

Organic farming is not suitable for every farm, however, and farmers must evaluate their options carefully. During conversion, output is likely to decrease without the compensation of premium prices and, as a result, the decision to convert requires detailed technical planning and financial budgeting if an organic enterprise is to succeed. It is also important to remember that not only will there be changes to husbandry techniques, but some consideration must be given to how produce will be marketed to obtain the maximum potential from organic markets and organic premiums.

In order to achieve organic status, land must be registered and have been farmed to an organic standard for a minimum of two years. Livestock can be converted either with the land—sometimes known as simultaneous conversion—or subsequently over a shorter period. However, since the animals must be fed on organic rations during conversion—that includes their forage—the conversion of a livestock enterprise is in practice finalised when sufficient land has been converted to supply the required forage.

We are talking not about conversion, but about a herd that has been in existence for 100 years.

I appreciate that. I was addressing my remarks to the title of the hon. Gentleman's debate. I shall shortly come to his point, but I shall conclude my initial remarks by saying that I think it important to tell farmers and producers who are looking to convert to organic beef to secure their market before beginning conversion. Many producers have had success in marketing direct to the public and building up a relationship with their consumers, and they are able to maintain a premium higher than that achieved by those selling to processors.

Farmers and producers are also advised to work with producer groups, which help to maintain prices across the sector by co-ordinating supply to ensure continuity. Basic management advice is also essential. For example, producers may need to reduce stocking rates to run an organic system, as heavily stocked land is more likely to rely on anthelmintics for worm control. Other advice might include sourcing organic feed, manure management and veterinary treatment. As part of that process, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs offers free on-farm advice delivered by the organic conversion information service. One must not forget the retailers, who have an important role. The organic action plan records that the major retailers have committed themselves to increasing the proportion of food that they source in the UK in product sectors, when it is feasible for British producers to supply at acceptable levels of quality and price. I am personally meeting the chief executives of the major retailers to try to tie them down on the commitments that each is prepared to make.

I turn now to what the hon. Gentleman said. I accept that the requirement under the beef assurance scheme to test over-30-month cattle for BSE, and to remove their vertebral columns, has caused difficulties for some members of the scheme, including, I am sorry to hear, the hon. Gentleman's constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, whose farm is near Totnes. My predecessors and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Blears) have responded to the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman. This is a long saga, which I am pleased to take on and address if I can.

The Government have supported the introduction of harmonised EU BSE controls, because those provide the best overall protection for UK consumers from the risk of BSE infectivity. The EU requirement to treat vertebral column from OTM cattle as specified risk material existed from October 2000, but that was not implemented in England and Wales in the hope that a derogation could be obtained. During a visit to the UK in June 2001 by Commission inspectors from the Food and Veterinary Office, who were checking compliance with BSE controls, the UK was criticised for not having implemented the requirement. Given our support for EC-wide transmissible spongiform encephalopathies measures, the only option was to implement the vertebral column requirement. That is why it is in place.

There are fewer than 50 BAS herds, which account for a tiny proportion of total slaughterings for human consumption. Most herds are small and produce only a few OTM cattle for human consumption. It is up to BAS herd owners to make their own commercial arrangements, and I appreciate that the Smiths have tried to do that. The hon. Gentleman asked several relevant questions about the difficulties faced by the Smiths, especially on abattoir capacity. I understand that in the Devon region that capacity is adequate for current projections of increases in organic slaughtered stock. Nevertheless, to deal with 30 per cent. organic stock from Devon would require the total commitment of the two main beef and lamb plants in Devon and Cornwall licensed for organic slaughtering. That is unlikely to be commercially acceptable and I understand that that is a serious problem. I am told, however, that two cutting plants have recently been licensed in Devon and Cornwall.

It is not a question of cutting plants—Mr. and Mrs. Smith cannot get their animals slaughtered. I need the Minister to say whether Langs', which is the nearest abattoir, can slaughter the animals, rather than refrigerate them, and take them straight away to the cutting plant in Newton Abbot. We are dealing with a crisis: in the next six months the whole herd will be burned. The Minister and his officials could deal with the matter and I hope that he will help me today.

I certainly undertake to do so. I think that the matter is probably best pursued in correspondence, in which I will give the hon. Gentleman a detailed response.

All licensed abattoirs are free to slaughter for human consumption BAS cattle aged between 30 and 42 months and they have been encouraged to do so by the Food Standards Agency. We understand that many choose not to do so because of the testing requirement for BSE and the need for the cattle to be moved to a licensed cutting plant for the vertebral column to be removed. That is the problem.

I cannot give an instant response, but I undertake to ensure that my officials look at the matter in detail and to come back to the hon. Gentleman with a fuller response.

It being half past Eleven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.