08 August 2002 | Robin Parker
Supermarkets have challenged government claims that they import three-quarters of their organic food purely for financial reasons.
Launching a drive to more than double the UK production of organic produce, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said retailers were under pressure to import organic produce to make it cheaper.
It said supermarkets' buying behaviour gave little or no security to UK producers, a proportion of whom can barely cover production costs, fostering hostile competition among them.
Defra's findings were backed by a National Farmers' Union survey that claimed that 30 per cent of organic farmers are making a loss.
A spokesman for Tesco welcomed the moves to help British farmers, but said import decisions were dictated by availability rather than price.
"We import only when we can't source organic products locally, as customers like to buy British. When we made 100 per cent of our eggs organic last year, all sourced from Britain, sales went up 20 per cent."
The retailer also holds organics workshops for farmers, and has invested £500,000 in a centre for organic agriculture at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to stimulate future market growth.
Defra's 21-point action plan, published in response to last year's Curry report on sustainable farming, outlines new payment schemes for farmers, and £5 million of research funding.
It wants to increase the UK's share of the market to 70 per cent, but did not suggest a target date. Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose have signed up to the plan to help boost the proportion of British organic food they sell.
The retailers have welcomed the bulk of the proposals as a more realistic way of buying more British produce than a recent attempt to get them to source 5 per cent of lines locally by 2005.
Supermarkets branded the Council for the Protection of Rural England's suggestion arbitrary and unworkable.
Defra is also in talks with its catering contractors to step up the supply of organic food to its staff canteens.