Special Edition: Organic and non-GMO

Actions bring UK organic sector more in line with EU counterparts

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

According to the European Commission, the UK remained the only country to register a decrease of 30% in utilised agricultural area (UAA) for organic farming between 2010 and 2016.

Contrast that to countries like Spain (2m hectares (ha)), Italy (1.8m ha), France (1.5m ha) and Germany (1.1m ha), which together make up over half (54.4%) of the total organic area in the European Union.

Germany in particular has seen the dynamism of the organic sector reflected in demand for ‘natural’ produce, with organic credentials fast becoming an integrated part of organic consumer expectations.

Growing consumer concerns for food safety, the natural environment and their overall health are fuelling demand for organic products,” ​explained Katya Witham, global food & drink analyst at Mintel.

“This is leading to the increased use of organic certification labels in German food and drink launches.​”

Mintel recorded a quarter (25%) of all food and drink products launched in Germany in 2017 carried organic claims, with the number of launches growing almost fourfold (291%) between 2008 and 2017.

And with news that German supermarket giants Aldi have launched over 60 new own-label organic products, mainland Europe appears to be embracing the organic wave in a way that the UK is either reluctant to or is prevented from doing so. 

This ‘barrier’ to growth has caused some concern to the country’s organic sector, with some groups believing growth should be closer to the 20% seen in some countries and market shares approaching 10% of food sales.

EU taking an organic lead

According to Adrian Blackshaw, chair of the Organic Trade Board, the UK organic market achieved €2.5bn (£2.2bn) retail sales value, with nearly 7% growth in 2017.

Germany is appearing to take the lead in organic food with the German government setting a target of 20% of the country’s agriculture to be organic by 2030.

France too intends to convert 22% of French farmland into organic areas by 2022.

Concerns were put in writing last week after The English Organic Forum (EOF) wrote to Defra Secretary Michael Gove asking for stronger support for organic farming.

Signed by OF&G and EOF members including Organic Arable, OMSC, the Organic Research Centre, the Soil Association, and the Organic Trade Board, the letter (sent 15 March) said it wanted to see organic production represent at least 10% of UK food and farming.

“In terms of land suitable for organic farming this fell overall by 3.6% in 2016,”​ acknowledged the Soil Association’s business development director, Claire McDermott. “In England this figure was 2.3%.

“However, the amount of UK farmland in organic conversion rose by more than 22% in 2016.”

“In some areas such as cereal and arable crops, there is a real need for the UK to grow a lot more of its own produce. There is the opportunity that is there. The more that we can grow ourselves, the better.”

Rewarding farmers

On the face of it, the UK is merely playing catch-up in asking for help at the highest level, a move already made across Europe as the sector counts on industry backing as well as government support.

The sector, it seems is in good health.

“In the past UK Government policy and commitment has been unclear, unlike the clarity seen in other markets,” ​explained Paul Moore, Organic Trade Board’s executive director.

“There is however a move both in the UK and on the Continent toward rewarding farmers for the delivery of ‘public goods’.

“Currently organic premiums look attractive and with the combined opportunity to secure farm support from delivering public goods, many of which are an inherent outcome of organic production, it is felt that organic production will offer opportunities for those willing to engage.

“The growth we are seeing now is sustained, 2017 is the sixth year of growth and it takes time for confidence to return to farmers and the market​.”

Innovation boost

So with government and industry support coming to fruition, are there any aspects of organic farming that require immediate attention?

Dr Susanne Padel, senior programme manager at The Organic Research Centre the UK believes innovation and invention has taken a back seat to the pressures of producing profitable yields, cost considerations and certification demands.

“In terms of agroecology the UK is behind the curve, not ahead,”​ she explained.

“For example France has a national focus on Agroecology and within that a focus on organic farming.

“The strong focus on technology solving agricultural problems in the UK does not encourage farmer to think about redesigning their farming systems, for example to include grassland in arable rotation.”  

Moore added that UK farmers were recognised as being innovative and creative, in particular organic farmers, who were seen to be entrepreneurial with many developing new direct routes to market .  

“Yes Precision Agriculture is developing in the UK but probably behind Germany in Europe,”​ added Dr Paul Bilsborrow, senior lecturer in agriculture, food and rural development at Newcastle University, who acknowledged these developments in terms of variable rate fertiliser, pesticide application were of little benefit or use to organic agriculture.

The B-word

Hopes for the future could encounter choppy waters, as 2018 may prove to be the biggest test to date for the UK’s organic sector.

Questions to the country’s organic prosperity post-Brexit coupled with recent news of the extension to the Basic Payment Scheme for farmers mean ‘a wait-and-see’ approach seems the best approach. For now, the consensus remains positive.

“This will be the year we learn more about what Brexit means for agriculture and the UK more broadly,” ​said Simon Crichton, food, farming and trade team manager for Triodos Bank UK.

“It will likely be a slow and hard-fought process for environmental and socio-economic policies to win out.

“Historic farming practices, the reduction in soil organic matter over the last 50 years and the general health and biodiversity above and below ground, are starting to have an impact on land sale and rental values.

“This can only be good news for existing organic farmers and those considering conversion. It will build further confidence in the often-hidden value of sustainable farming practices in the natural capital we all rely upon.”

Roger Kerr, chief executive of Organic Farmers & Growers Ltd (OF&G), added that he and other EOF members were surprised that the organic sector had not played a larger role during Brexit discussions.

“We would like to have seen organic farming, with all the benefits it offers, part of the consultation proposals on food and farming policy,” ​he said.

“Organic production is backed up by a legal regulation with annual inspections, certification and verification,”

“With this robust approach, Defra can have confidence in organic food and farming delivering economic and public goods for all.”

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