Is Organic Farming Answer to Europe's Food Crisis? : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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Monday March 5 5:50 PM ET Is Organic Farming Answer to Europe's Food Crisis? By Sharman Esarey LONDON (Reuters) - Is cheap food worth the risk? Or is organic the answer? Across Europe, politicians struggling to end food crises ranging from mad cow to foot-and-mouth disease are questioning conventional farming practices and hunting for alternatives. Last week, foot-and-mouth disease spread from England to Scotland and Northern Ireland, prompting other European countries to tighten steps to disinfect travellers and vehicles from the British Isles. European consumers, who have already weathered a raft of food scares including E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella and dioxin, were badly shaken last autumn when the mad cow, or BSE, crisis spread from Britain to the continent. Given all the bad news, they have grown wary of anything ''unnatural'' and have shunned genetically modified (GM) foods, which are spliced with foreign genes to help them resist drought or ward off pests. Organic methods--which strive for sustainable farming and quality food--differ from the intensive farming blamed for the spread of crises such as mad cow, a brain-wasting disease whose the human form has killed more than 80 people. They put emphasis on animal welfare, soil fertility and creating a self-sustaining system. And that sounds better and better to many consumers and political leaders. With television and newspapers carrying pictures of thousands of animal carcasses being burned across Britain and mainland Europe, politicians are looking for solutions--and villains. Farming has become increasingly intensive in the search for cheaper food. The big retail food chains and supermarkets want large amounts of produce at competitive prices. In Britain, five supermarket chains account for more than 80% of all grocery sales and their profits exceed those of all of the country's small farmers. Prime Minister Tony Blair took to the road last week and accused supermarkets of being part of the problem, saying they were making profits at the expense of farmers. ``The supermarkets have pretty much an armlock on you,'' Blair told a public meeting in Gloucester in the west of England. ``We need to go back to the table and work this out on a long-term basis, `` said Blair. He is said to be considering delaying the call for a general election because of restrictions on movement aimed at curbing the foot-and-mouth crisis. Europe, which long felt itself to be immune from the BSE food crisis, is considering its options. EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler has announced plans to encourage less intensive farming. In Germany, Farm Minister Renate Kuenast, a Green, unveiled plans in February to raise organic farming to 20% over 10 years from 2.6% in Europe's largest economy. But last week the Finance Ministry said that extra costs linked to managing the country's outbreak of mad cow disease may not be covered by revenues planned in the 2001 federal budget. The cost of containing and cleaning up the messes means that less money is available to promote organic farming. It also means that consumers are paying a hefty additional amount for their food outside the supermarket--in the taxes devoted to compensate farmers and in subsidies directed at conventional farmers in the first place. Similarly, consumers don't pay at the till for the clean-up of the artificial fertilisers and pesticides used in conventional but not in organic farming. They pay that in their water bill. So while organic food takes a bigger apparent chunk from consumers' wallets than the conventional variety at the supermarket, that is only part of the picture. Besides, ever-cheaper food from the shelf pressures producers and processors. Food costs have dropped to some 10% of people's income from 30% after World War Two. ``Cheap food actually means higher risk,'' said Emma Parkin, spokesperson for Britain's Soil Association, founded in 1946 to promote organic farming. ``Some might cut corners, or import cheaper (lower quality) produce.'' But demand for organic produce is growing as consumer worries mount. At present, some 5% of the European retail food market is organic, with Sweden leading the pack at 11% of the land organically farmed. In Britain, the average weekly expenditure on organic food rose to 20.76 pounds ($30.54) in May 2000 from 12.66 a year earlier, according to a report by Taylor Nelson Sofres. The number of families buying organic during the period rose to 57.4 percent from 43%. ``We cannot continue to have ever cheaper food,'' Parkin said, adding ``Is it worth...the risk?''

-- K. (, March 06, 2001

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