Organic sector chiefs are calling on Defra to use the new British agricultural policy as a mechanism for growth, but is organic on the Government’s radar? Olivia Midgley reports.
Support for organic in the UK is lagging behind its major European counterparts and Defra Secretary Michael Gove should use his ‘green’ Brexit mandate to incentivise production and help the sector cash in on the growing market.
In a letter to Mr Gove, the English Organic Forum set out why strong support for organic farming would be a significant opportunity to deliver both economic and environmental benefits, consistent with Government policy aspirations.
According to the Soil Association’s recent organic market report, the UK sector grew 6 per cent in 2017 and is now worth £2.2 billion.
Adrian Blackshaw, Organic Trade Board chairman, said: “Currently the European organic market is worth more than £30bn, while globally, the organic market has reached £70bn retail sales value.
“In the UK, the organic market achieved £2.2billion retail sales value, with nearly 7 per cent growth in 2017. But many EU countries have seen 20 per cent market growth rates in recent years, with market shares approaching 10 per cent of food sales.
“Clearly we have some catching up to do just to satisfy growing consumer demand.”
The forum, which is made up of a number of organic trade bodies, said it was concerned Defra had made no mention of organic in its latest future farm policy document.
Liz Bowles, head of farming at the Soil Association, said: “Organic farming has been conspicuous by the absence of its mention in recent Government consultations.
“Other marks, such as Leaf and free-range, and practices, such as no-till, have been mentioned in a positive context.
“This is disappointing in light of the fact organic farming is a farming system governed by EU law and with independent annual inspections for all organic farmers and processors. In this respect, it is unique in having standards backed by law.”
Historically, the Government has taken the view that organic farmers receive a premium for their products and this was considered when calculating any support payments for organic conversion and/or maintenance.
In addition, various agri-environment schemes bar organic farmers from applying for some measures which they comply with as organic farmers and which pay a higher level of support than organic maintenance, for example low or no fertiliser use on grassland.
Ms Bowles said: “Overall, current payments for organic conversion/maintenance do not include any payment for benefits to the environment, health and society provided by organic farming systems.
“These are benefits which are now increasingly understood and appreciated with research papers regularly pointing them out.”
James Robinson, who runs an organic dairy herd in Cumbria, said producers ‘craved some certainty’ as Brexit loomed.
“About 12 months ago, Mr Gove said organic would be rewarded, but there has been no mention of it since,” said Mr Robinson, whose family took advantage of a conversion grant 12 years ago.
“We have done well out of the marketplace with the organic milk price keeping fairly constant, but it has to stack up business wise.
“If there is no money in it and it is better to go conventional, we would turn our back on it. Of course with the rules around conversion, once you are out you are out for a long time. Whether the Government realises this I do not know.”
Mr Robinson said as well as support for conversion and for farming organic, both organic and conventional farmers would benefit from new research. One example was establishing more clovers in leys for their nitrogen fixing properties.
He added: “This has broad appeal and would help both systems, but because organic is such a small market, we do not have major companies wanting to invest in it.”
Mr Gove was handed the letter ahead of the Prosperity UK Green Brexit Conference in London last week.
A Defra spokesman said: “We have launched a consultation on agriculture which sets out an ambitious and positive future for the future of farming. We encourage all farmers and interested parties including the organic sector to take part during the 10 week consultation period.”
Organic production in other countries – how the UK compares
ORGANIC farming accounts for 6.7 per cent of farmland under production in the EU (UK, 3 per cent). Italy, Sweden and Austria are 15-20 per cent.
President Emmanuel Macron declared a target of 22 per cent of French farmland to be organic by 2022 and the German Government coalition agreement includes a target of 20 per cent of German agriculture to be organic by 2030.
The UK ranks only above Malta; its farmers receive less than 1 per cent of farm support, and producers in The Netherlands who receive nothing.
Learning from Denmark
Earlier this year, The Organic Trade Board, in partnership with Organic Denmark, secured joint EU funding to promote the sector, worth about £10 million over three years.
Marketing director at Organic Denmark, Henrik Hindborg, said: “Denmark has become the world’s leading organic nation, with organic food sales representing 10 per cent of all food sales in 2016, moving Organic from ‘niche’ to ‘mainstream’.
“We have had 10 years of consistent growth, with half of all Danes now buying organic food every week.”
Mr Hindborg cited a combination of ‘effective’ organic policies and close co-operation with Danish retailers for the uptick.
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