Organic Articles: UKROFF?

The Organic Consultancy

UKROFF?

Simon Wright
The Organic Consultancy

This article originally appeared in the May 2002 edition of Organic Business.

Regular readers of Organic Business will know that UKROFS (the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards) is currently under review. The deadline for public responses to the review has now passed, so as a Board member of UKROFS I can have my say. And I am very unhappy with what is being proposed.

UJKROFS was created in July 1987 and in 1991 was designated the competent legal authority to look after UK organic certification. Fifteen years later UKROFS was reviewed for the first time and unsurprisingly changes were recommended. Some of these changes are sensible there is no obvious reason why UKROFS itself should certify a small number of organic farms. Other changes recommended by the review are valid but have already been put in place for example communication of UKROFS decisions has been speeded up through the www.defr.gov.uk/farm/organic website where Board minutes are placed within days of each meeting.

What I feel most strongly about is the proposal that the certification accreditation function be taken away from UKROFS and given to UKAS. My first concern is that UKAS by its own admission knows very little about organic matters. Expert advisory committees will therefore be required, similar to the current UKROFS Technical and Certification committees. UKAS does not pay for these committees, so they are likely to be filled by representatives of large companies who can afford to subsidise their attendance. Currently members of UKROFS committees receive a modest attendance allowance and can claim the cost of their travelling. This means that the stakeholders such as consumers, vets and farmers can afford to have their say.

My second concern about moving to UKAS is cost. The UKROFS review aimed to identify “efficiency savings”. Currently DEFRA allocates 263,000 per annum to UKROFS. Were UKAS to take over accreditation this sum could conceivably be reduced. However since UKAS charges around 760 per day for their services my suspicion is that the total cost of certification accreditation would increase, and this increase would be charged to certifying bodies who would in turn pass it on to licensees and ultimately to the organic consumer. Result : higher prices for UK organic food.

My third concern is the lack of joined-up thinking. Since I joined the board of UKROFS most of my time has been spent working to help interpret and develop UK organic standards, working closely with the UK organic sector bodies. Handing over accreditation to UKAS means that the link between sector development and organic accreditation is lost.

I accept that UKROFS could have done things better and quicker. The single biggest problem has been underfunding. Since 1987 the demands on UKROFS have grown far more quickly than the resources available. My fellow Board member Christopher Stopes has calculated that the cost of UKROFS has fallen from 6.43 per hectare of organic land in 1994 to 0.39 per hectare of organic land in 2001 now that’s what I call “efficiency savings”!. A modest increase in government investment in UKROFS to ensure the sector remains well-regulated is entirely in keeping with official Government policy stated elsewhere. And we’re worth it.