Led by Newcastle university in the UK the QualityLowInputFood (QLIF) project will test organic and conventional crops - including cabbages, lettuces, carrots, potatoes and wheat - to compare factors such as taste and nutritional quality with overall aim to improve the safety, quality and productivity along the European organic food chains.
"There are more and more indications that moving to natural production systems, such as organic farming, can improve food quality. This project will attempt to find out why this is the case, and how we can further improve on these production systems," said project leader, Professor Carlo Leifert, leader of Nafferton Ecological Farming Group at the university of Newcastle.
The EU organic market was worth around €10 billion in 2002, according to data from Organic Monitor, but growth has slowed in recent years: an increase of 8 per cent between 2001 and 2002 shrunk to an estimated 5 per cent between 2002 and 2003.
Earlier this month the organic industry received a major boost when the European Commission adopted a new action plan to promote the sector. The current challenge is to ensure, and maintain, consumer trust in premium-priced organics, but farmers in the new member states in particular are set to benefit if the plan is a success.
The 21-point plan covers all areas of the organic trade - from rural development and improving farming standards to improving consumer information and the introduction of an EU-wide organic food label - and is said to be a reaction to increasing consumer demand for organic food, often considered 'safer' and 'healthier' than more mainstream food production methods, especially in the wake of various food scares.
Organic production has grown steadily over the last 20 years. In 1985, just 100,000 hectares of EU farm land was certified organic - less than 0.1 per cent of total farm land. By the end of 2002, this figure had risen to 4.4 million ha or 3.3 per cent of total farm land.
But there are still great disparities between the various EU nations. In Austria, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Sweden and the UK, organic farm land exceeds the EU-15 average, but in all the other nations, the levels are still well below average - indeed, with less than 1 per cent of farm land set aside for organic production, Greece and Ireland have barely progressed beyond the EU average of 1985.
But persuading more farmers throughout the 25-nation bloc to convert to organic production - seen by the EU as a core means of sustaining growth in the agricultural sector over the years to come - will depend on persuading them that consumers actually want to buy organic foods.
"Promoting environmentally friendly quality products is one major objective of the new, reformed Common Agricultural Policy," said Franz Fischler, Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries. "This is why we want to boost organic farming by stepping up information for consumers, strengthening the control system and improving research."
The first set of results from the Newcastle project will be presented at a university conference - Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health Congress - from 6 to 9 January, 2005. The will be attended by leaders from the growing industry as well as academics.