Organic farming is thought to play a crucial role in the move towards a more sustainable food system.
According to the European Commission, organic farming provides a higher income for farmers and benefits smaller, family-run operations.
Organic farms are also perceived to be more resilient and are known to encourage greater biodiversity. Further, their animals enjoy higher animal welfare than their conventionally farmed counterparts.
Given these benefits, the European Commission wants to increase organic production across the bloc. Specifically, the Commission has set a target of achieving at least 25% agricultural land under organic farming by 2030.
As currently just 8.5% of agricultural land is dedicated to organic agriculture, both supply and demand are in need of a boost, suggest MEPs.
‘Supply and demand must go hand-in-hand’
“To reach the proposed 25%, we need to promote organic farming and its products thoroughly,” said German MEP Christine Schneider at a recent European Food Forum (EFF) event.
“It is the market demand that determines the fate of our agricultural landscape. If there is no demand for [organically] grown products, organic farming will not be the answer.”
Current demand for organic varies significantly across the EU 27. According to 2019 figures, Germany has the largest market (€12bn) for organic food, followed by France (€11.3bn), Italy (€3.6bn), Sweden (€2.1bn) and Spain (€2bn).
Denmark has the highest organic retail share at 12.1%, followed by Sweden, Austria, and Luxembourg. Denmark also boasts the highest average spend per capita (€344), whereas the EU average stands at €84.
The EU boasts the second largest single market (€38.8bn) for organics, behind the US (€44.7bn), and ahead of China (€8.5bn).
Concerning agricultural land under organic farming, Austria is leading the charge. Yet it has only achieved this position by ensuring corresponding demand, explained Austrian MEP Simone Schmiedtbauer at the EFF event.
“In Austria, 26% of agricultural land is farmed organically. We are already fulfilling the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies’ organic targets today. But this achievement did not happen overnight – it happened over the course of decades.
“And it only works because we export some of our organic products produced,” she said, explaining that Austria’s national demand is not sufficient to ‘make organic farming profitable’ for its farmers.
For Schmiedtbauer, therefore, the Commission’s 25% target is a ‘strong stance’. There will be no increase in organic production without corresponding organic demand, she told delegates.
“If we insist on a 300% increase in organic land, from a European average of around 8% to 25% by 2030, it can only happen if supply and demand grow together hand-in-hand.”
Encouraging consumer uptake
If Europe ‘forces a massive increase’ in organic farming, without encouraging ‘acceptable growth’ in the sales market, Schmiedtbauer fears organic prices would ‘collapse’. “In the end, this would be of no use to the farmers, nor for the climate, or our environmental protection efforts.”
The Austrian MEP suggested that responsibility needs to be balanced out across the value chain.
“On the ‘farm’ side, we already find clear efforts and targets as to how farmers should contribute to the overall goal of climate neutrality, and amongst them, the organic target.
“On the ‘fork’ side, however, we find less efforts and targets – especially numerical targets. Yet both sides are strictly connected and of equal importance.”
For Schmiedtbauer, there is a ‘big responsibility’ across the whole food chain, but ‘especially on the consumer side’.
“Let us not forget, consumers dictate the food chain. At the end of the day, farmers produce what the consumers buy, and if it is organic, then we happily produce organic.”
According to Schmiedtbauer, the Commission ‘now’ understands the important role demand plays in achieving greater organic coverage, as demonstrated by its recently published Organic Action Plan.
The plan details how it expects to achieve its goal by stimulating production and processing; strengthening environmental sustainability; and by boosting consumer demand.
Concerning the latter, the Commission plans to increase the consumption of organic products and strengthen consumers’ trust by undertaking actions to promote organic farming and the EU logo; promote organic canteens and increase the use of green public procurement; reinforce organic school schemes; prevent food fraud; improve traceability; and facilitate contribution of the private sector.
Schmiedtbauer welcomes the plan. “The demand side is finally taken into account in the Organic Action Plan,” she told delegates, suggesting that the Commission has done a ‘U-turn’ since its Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies, “which basically say [increase] organic production and everything will [be] just fine”.
The Organic Action Plan’s approach was similarly welcomed by IFOAM Organics Europe. “It’s very important to have a push and pull approach,” explained IFOAM president Jan Plagge at the event.
This means integrating the entire food value chain, from consumers to retailers and food processors, into this transition, he explained. “For every conventional farm that converts to organic, we need processors, retailers, and consumers to convert their habits of consumption.”