By Ian Johnston
SCOTTISH farmers are being forced to use pesticide-free animal feed from Ukraine and Kazahkstan to keep up with the demand for organic meat, The Scotsman can reveal.
Stocks of wheat are being transported thousands of miles to compensate for a dire shortage of local organic wheat.
The trend has raised concerns about the environmental impact of the "food miles" now becoming involved in organic meat production in Scotland.
Only a small percentage of feed for organic livestock is allowed to come from non-organic crops where pesticides are used and these allowances are set to fall again by the year's end.
Some farmers have urged the Soil Association Scotland to slacken the rules so they can breed their stock using a higher level of non-organic feed, according to sources, but that move has been "staunchly resisted" to maintain consumer confidence in organic food.
Hugh Raven, of Soil Association Scotland, said action should be taken to help bridge the gap between the numbers of organic livestock farmers and arable farmers who provide feed for their stock in Scotland.
"Scotland is producing nothing like the organic wheat to meet demand for human consumption but also for feed compounds. We're having to import very large quantities," he said.
"I think the consequences of carrying on as we are is the [organic feed] market will grow very much more rapidly than the supply and we'll end up sucking in a great many more imports, which is undesirable from a food transport and emissions side but also because we'd be missing very good opportunities to increase our own organic."
According to briefing notes sent to main political parties by Soil Association Scotland in the run-up to next week's elections, farmers are in dire need of financial help to convert to "environmentally-friendly farming".
It highlights how 59 out of 161 applications to the Scottish Executive for conversion funding were refused in 2006, and 98 out of 153 farmers who had recently converted were turned down for maintenance funds.
The association said the GBP11.3 million available in organic aid and rural stewardship funds over a five-year period should be increased ten-fold to an annual sum of GBP23 million.
Bill Brown, 39, who has a 300-acre farm near Peebles, was among those turned down, losing out on GBP4,000 a year.
"The Scottish Executive has made a lot of play of wantingwant to support sustainable agriculture," he said. "It ought to put a bit more money into it.
"It is expecting mainstream farmers to make a significant change to how they farm. It's expensive for the first few years as you have to farm under organic rules, but can't sell anything as organic.
"We need organic wheat. There's a real supply problem for organic wheat. We need more cereal farmers to convert so they can supply enough feed."
Currently five per cent of feed for sheep and cattle and 15 per cent for poultry can be non-organic, but both figures are to be cut to zero and ten per cent respectively in December.
The price of organic wheat soared from just over GBP150 a tonne last autumn to GBP255 in February, before dropping back to GBP215 recently as imports from Kazakhstan, Ukraine and other lands came in to plug the gap.
- SALES of organic food in the UK have increased dramatically in recent years. According to the latest Soil Association Organic Market Report, published in 2006, sales were up by 30 per cent on the previous year.
Supermarkets are expanding their organic ranges, but a growing number of consumers are turning directly to the farmers for their organic food. Sales through box schemes, farmers' markets and farm shops rose by about 11 per cent in 2005 and are now worth around GBP125 million a year.
Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's and Waitrose have been praised by the Soil Association for stocking more organic food from UK farmers and reducing the amount they import.
Restaurants are also starting to take notice. Ethical Eats, a group established by London Food Link - a division of the food and farming charity, Sustain - has started bringing together restaurant owners to discuss how they can make their supply chains more environment-friendly and how they can educate diners to ask questions about what they are eating.
A survey out in February revealed that while the mega-brands representing fizzy drinks, chocolate and crisps remain established at the head of the industry's "top 100" grocery league table, they are for the first time facing serious competition from organic rivals. Brands like Yeo Valley Organic Yoghurt broke into the list for the first time.