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Organic news archive: March 2005

The government is planning to buy a farm so it can prove to farmers that its vision for agriculture is workable, and that they have nothing to fear from wildlife-friendly farming methods, said a spokesman. Gordon Brown has taken a personal interest in the purchase of the farm, as he hoped it could be used as an educational resource, and wants all MPs to work on it for a week each year. The spokesman added that food produced on the farm will be marketed under the brand name 'Farm Labour'. "We could have Cherie-flavoured yoghurt and Prescottage pie complemented by plenty of hard cheese," he said.

Education secretary Ruth Kelly unveiled a £280 million funding package to boost the quality of school meals on the same day that TV chef Jamie Oliver delivered a petition to Downing Street demanding better food for schoolchildren. The package launched on 30 March 2005 requires that schools spend at least 50p per child on ingredients and also stipulates that from September and over the next three years, schools and local education authorities will be supported in transforming school meals with healthy food. This should be prepared from fresh on school premises by trained school cooks, and should meet minimum nutrition standards underpinned by Ofsted inspection which will be mandatory from September 2006. Soil Association Director, Patrick Holden said : "The Soil Association is delighted by Ruth Kelly's announcement of new money and improved standards for school meals. Jamie Oliver has helped ensure a successful outcome to the most important campaign in the Soil Association's 60-year history. We were founded on the belief that there is a link between good quality food and health. All the schools we have worked with have noticed real improvements in pupil behaviour, and in many cases their health."

Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta has admitted accidentally selling to the US genetically modified corn that had not been approved by US authorities. (The Evening Standard - 24/3/05)

The farm subsidy figures published yesterday show for the first time exactly how much taxpayers' money rich landowners and members of the royal family are receiving from the public purse. It shows that large landowners receive hundreds of thousands of pounds from the taxpayer, while small farmers get very little. The 100 farmers at the bottom of the league received less than £25 in subsidy last year. The lowest was 31p, paid to a farmer known simply as M. Kelman. For decades, campaigners have pressed the government to publish details of how the subsidies - worth £ 1.7bn last year - were distributed to farmers. (The Guardian - 23/3/05)

The farming industry condemned as a "whitewash" a report published yesterday by the Office of Fair Trading that concluded supermarkets treat their suppliers fairly. They said retailers had created a culture of fear that masked abuses of power and prevented farmers from coming forward through fear of losing key contracts. The OFT concluded after a nine-month study that supermarkets were largely adhering to the voluntary code of conduct in the industry designed to ensure a fair deal for all. This verdict was met with derision by farming groups, environmentalists and financial advisers to the agricultural industry. The OFT found evidence in 46 cases where the code of conduct appears to have been breached, 44 of which relate to Safeway with the rest discovered at Sainsbury. These involved the supermarket groups demanding lump sum payments from suppliers in return for continuing to do business with them. (The Independent - 23/3/05)

Gagging orders have been slapped on dinner ladies from talking about school meals by one the UK's biggest catering firms. Rentokil-Initial has threatened staff with disciplinary action if they speak to parents about the quality of food provided. (Daily Mirror)

Labour has been forced into an embarrassing climbdown over bogus claims it had been involved in a long-term partnership with Jamie Oliver to improve school dinners. Children's minister Margaret Hodge had said the Government had been working alongside the TV chef 'for more than a year' on the issue. But yesterday the production company behind his campaigning Channel 4 series Jamie's School Dinners made clear that contact had been 'sporadic' - at best. In fact, Oliver had to wait nearly a year before any minister agreed to meet him to discuss the state of school meals. (Daily Mail)

Organic milk is healthier for you than non-organic milk, reports the Evening Standard. Three pieces of independent scientific research have found that it [organic milk] is better than the conventional equivalent. Milk from Rachel's Organic and Altogether Better Organic are commended for being nutritionally superior.

Sheep can fall in love and experience other complex emotions like friendship, scientists have discovered. Ewes fall in love with rams, sheep have best friends and they feel sad when members of the flock die or are slaughtered, studies have found.

Electrodes were inserted into sheep's brains to measure activity when they were stimulated. Sheep were shown pictures of rams they were closely associated with or sheep in their group of "friends". Scientists at the Babraham Research Institute in Cambridge recorded the animals' brain activity when they were shown the pictures. Researchers say female sheep enjoy sex. But ewes forget their partners far more quickly than human women.

Helen Davies, secretary of the National Sheep Association Wales, has a flock of 10 Blue Faced Leicesters and 30 Suffolk sheep on her farm near Welshpool, Powys.

"I can agree that some sheep form their own characteristics. Some are stubborn and some are obliging and do what you want. If you move the Blue Faced Leicesters around they get very upset. If you split one from the others they will bleat all night long."

Professor Keith Kendrick, a neuroscientist who led the research, said sheep and human brains have a lot in common. The discoveries could have important implications for the way livestock is reared and treated on farms. Sheep have been found to experience complex human emotions and can recognise faces. (IC North Wales Daily Post, 14 March 2005)

The long-awaited final results of the GM trials for Britain's biggest crop, winter oil seed rape, show that wildlife and the environment would suffer if the crop was grown in the UK, in effect ending the biotech industry's hopes of introducing GM varieties in the foreseeable future. The government, which has been keen to introduce GM crops, now has the results of the world's most comprehensive crop study, demonstrating that the GM varieties currently on offer would be detrimental to the countryside. Bayer CropScience, the company that owns the patent on the GM oil seed rape being tested, said afterwards that it was not going ahead with its application to grow the crop in Europe.

Yesterday's results were particularly significant because winter-grown oil seed rape occupies 330,000 hectares (815,000 acres) of British fields and is the largest single crop, and the one from which farmers make most money. The main finding was that broadleaf weeds, such as chickweed, on which birds rely heavily for food, were far less numerous in GM fields than conventional fields. The scientific results made it clear that it is not the GM crops that harm wildlife but the herbicide sprayed on them. Fields containing conventional crops are sprayed with a herbicide which usually kills weeds before the crops emerge but herbicide-tolerant GM crops can be sprayed later. (The Guardian; Daily Mail; The Independent)

The Conservative Party took advantage of the government's discomfort, with Tim Yeo, the environment spokesman, announcing that the party would not allow GM crops to be grown in Britain unless it could be proved they were safe for people and the environment. (The Guardian; Financial Times)

Tony Blair has written a front page article for The Observer newspaper. He says a new School Food Trust 'will draw on the remarkable work of Jamie Oliver in schools, and the Soil Association in encouraging the use of organic and local produce in school meals'. The article states that the Prime Minister is to bow to the increasing clamour for better school meals from parents. He has been impressed by meetings with the Peter Melchett, and the Soil Association's' work in showing how children can be fed on locally grown and organic menus'. (The Observer - 20/3/05)

Scientists have said that genetically modified crop trials have effectively been halted in Britain because of protests by environmentalists. Ian Crute, director of the Rothamsted Research centre, said it had been forced to move trials abroad or end them entirely because they were constantly torn up by protesters. (The Observer - 20/3/05; Daily Telegraph - 21/3/05)

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates "buys lots of organic veg" from the Luscious Organic health food shop, according to co-owner Boy George. "The floor staff are always joking that he probably turns all his potatoes into chips - they're a witty bunch" he adds.

More pesticides widely used on the Continent could become available to UK growers under so-called mutual recognition of overseas approvals within the EU. Test cases are being pursued by both Makhteshim Agan and Sygenta. In some cases existing approvals overseas could be enough to secure approval of previously unseen identical products.

Seven out of ten consumers want to buy local and regional food and 50 per cent want to buy more than they do now, according to a new survey from Institute of Grocery Distribution. Nearly a quarter want to buy local and regional foods from convenience stores, while over one third look for a specific local area in-store, such as the organic section.

A demonstration farm aimed at promoting and raising awareness of the benefits of using compost in organic agriculture has been launched in Wiltshire. WRAP has teamed up with the Soil Association to sponsor the compost and organic crop demonstration farm, Coleshill Organic Farm, near Swindon. Lucy Rees, the Soil Association's waste minimisation officer, said the farm offered a great opportunity for compost users and agriculturalists to see first hand the successful use of compost on an award winning farm.

Britain's organic food market has undergone unprecedented growth, according to new statistics released at the BioFach 2005 world organic trade fair in Nuremberg, Germany. Between 1999 and 2003, UK sales grew by 111%, the highest rate of rise in any country over that period. Patrick Holden, Director of the Soil Association said: "People are becoming aware that industrial farming is taking something away from them. There is an underlying wish for a more trustworthy, environmentally friendly and healthy alternative."

Primary schools which belong to the government's national healthy schools programme, where pupils are better fed and exercised, have outperformed others in national tests in reading, writing, maths and science, according to research commissioned by the government. The findings will underline the link between healthy life style and educational attainment and put fresh pressure on ministers to spend more money per head on school meals amid a growing public debate about poor nutritional standards. (The Guardian - 9/3/05)

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