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January 12, 2011

EU organic food push hailed by African farmers

by James Melik

The European Union (EU) is co-funding a $2.8m (£1.8m) publicity campaign to convince UK residents that organic food is good.

According to the industry body, the Organic Trade Board (OTB), the aim is to democratise organic foods and make people aware of their benefits. In other words, the OTB wants people to buy more organic produce. The board will be running advertising campaigns for nine months of the year over the next three years, entitled: Why I Love Organic.

They want to put across the message that there is nothing elitist about organic foods and to highlight what they consider to be the advantages, both to a person's health and to the environment. This is good news for organic farmers, whose trade has been diminishing as shoppers continue to tighten their belts and look upon organics as a luxury they can no longer afford.

"I won't buy it because it is more expensive. I think it's a good idea but it's the price which puts me off," says one shopper at a market stall in North London.

Another decrees that she will buy it at a comparable price, but not otherwise, while a woman who recently had a baby says: "I am trying to save a bit of money on food shopping each week, so I would only treat organic food like a luxury product."

For organic producers in developing countries, the drop-off in trade in recent years has been a bitter blow.

Anthony Pile of Blue Skies, which imports pre-packaged fruit into Europe, has had to close down his Brazilian operation and lay off 150 workers in South Africa and a further 200 in Ghana. He says that it is his farmers in Ghana who have been the hardest hit.

"We have had quite a difficult time with organics, because when the business started some 12 or 13 years ago, we worked closely with farmers in a rather poor area in the central region of Ghana and they had virtually nothing else," he says. "They were delighted when we were able to market their sugarloaf pineapple in Europe."

There was a gradual rise in output over the dozen years up to 2009, but it then started to drop very sharply from about 23 tonnes a week to a couple of tonnes at the end of 2010.

"These are smallholders who have hitherto depended upon their folk selling pineapples beside the road," Mr Pile explains. "Now of course, they have got used to the idea of building proper homes and putting in sanitation," he says. "One of two of the villages have got electricity and they have started to improve schooling for their children. We were the sole income and that has come now to a grinding halt," he laments.

He views the new initiative by the EU as a positive step towards helping the market grow once more and thus alleviating the hard times that his farmers are currently experiencing.

In the UK, organic sales dropped 13% per cent in 2009 and have been making only a slow recovery since then. The OTB is unhappy that the organic sector is not getting more help from the UK government.

"In most other countries, their funding was supplied by central governments or levy bodies, whereas we didn't get that support in the UK and we have had to rely on voluntary contributions from those within the trade," says Huw Bowles of the OTB. "We find that in a number of European countries, there are public procurement policies in place that specify certain proportions of organic foods, which is not the case in the UK."

He believes that is why organic sales in the UK have fallen, whereas most European countries and many countries across the world are seeing continued growth.

"In America, for example, which has far worse economic conditions than us, it could be argued, there has been continuing growth over the last couple of years."

Not everybody thinks that such EU funding is money well spent.

"It is somewhat ironical that the EU is blowing million of pounds of taxpayers' money on this campaign, given that Brussels is in the process of forcing through the Food Supplements Directive that will severely restrict the availability of hundreds of essential minerals and herbal remedies," says Marc Glendening of the UK-based Democracy Movement.

Mr Glendening objects to the EU's decision to allow the cultivation of genetically modified crops. In March 2010, it approved the growing of the Amflora potato, produced by BASF of Germany.

He accuses the EU of encouraging the extensive use of pesticides through the Common Agricultural Policy. He also points out that until 2008, it enforced marketing standards that prevented oddly-sized or misshapen fruit and vegetables being sold in Europe.

"The funding of this patronising 'eat organic' campaign is probably a cynical attempt to give the EU a veneer of being green-friendly," Mr Glendening asserts, "when in reality everybody knows big pharmaceutical companies and agri-business determine policy-making behind closed doors in Brussels."

Why should anyone spend their hard-earned cash on organic foods? There is no hard scientific evidence that it is any better for our health than ordinary fruit and veg or meat and milk.

It is not an argument that sways Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

"There is no question that people who have habitually consumed organic foods have lower levels of pesticides in their blood," she says. "If those pesticides are harmful, then they are going to have a lower risk of whatever harm those pesticides might cause," she maintains.

One problem is that there has never been any incontrovertible data on the effects of pesticides, mainly because such studies are so difficult to conduct.

"There is no reason to think that pesticides are good for people's health, but there may be plenty of reasons to think that they are not so good - so in that sense, having lower levels of pesticides seems like a really good idea," she says.

Surveys suggest that organics are losing ground to "fair trade" products, as ethical shoppers make difficult choices on how best to spend their money.

"With all our suppliers, we agree a price which is fair and exceeds the sustainable cost of production and a time scale with which everyone is happy to be paid within," says Anthony Pile of Blue Skies.

The agreements are reviewed with the supplier on an annual basis or as inflation dictates.

"While we aim to ensure that all our products are traded fairly, we also support established schemes like 'Fairtrade' and 'Ethical Trade Organic', which help to give producers in the developing world a better deal," he asserts.

The EU's intervention has been welcomed in many quarters, but many consumers these days feel that charity begins at home, since there is rather less of their own money to go round.

Paying a premium for organic produce might not be an option they can all afford.


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