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Growing demand for organic food and drink has driven a “significant” increase in UK land in organic conversion, according to provisional 2020 data from Defra. Defra’s latest organic farming statistics reveal an 11.6% growth in certified organic land in conversion across the UK, a trend that has increased every year since 2014, with the exception of 2019.
OF&G (Organic Farmers & Growers) says that despite the organic industry facing “numerous challenges” the overall picture for the industry “remains very robust”. OF&G certifies more than 50% of the UK organic land area, and the group itself saw a slight increase in producers during the period, although the overall sector declined by 5%.
“It is essential that we continue to focus on the solutions that an organic systems approach delivers,” said Roger Kerr, chief executive at OF&G. “Only by embracing diverse farming approaches will we see UK farming’s potential clearly demonstrated.” By building on the current “robust organic pipeline,” Roger says, “policy makers can truly deliver on their aspirations.”
The latest statistics from Defra “demonstrate positive growth and confidence in the organic sector,” according to Soil Association Certification senior business development manager Sophie Kirk. What’s more, the volume of land currently under conversion with Soil Association Certification has grown even more rapidly, increasing 24% in the year to March 2021.
This is due to growing incentives for farmers to convert to organic. Sophie says these include: “The significant and sustained growth in demand for organic produce through the pandemic; the availability of Government support for organic across some parts of the UK; the technological improvements in organics; and the growing interest amongst consumers and farmers for farming to provide more benefits for the environment and the climate.”
Indeed, according to the Soil Association’s latest market report and a report by the Organic Trade Board, spending on organic products has grown by 12.6% and 14.1% respectively, with almost nine in 10 households purchasing organic in 2020. As of last year, the sector was worth £2.79bn.
Data from the Soil Association’s Organic Farming and Growing - Does it Stack Up? report found that net farm income is higher on organic arable and livestock farms compared to non-organic. Andrew Bullock is the farm manager at Sezincote Farm, which began organic conversion in 2019. “We’re in the process of converting our farm to organic in a bid to make environmental improvements and control blackgrass within our arable rotation. We’ve received Countryside Stewardship funding to support conversion of the farm and are already receiving a premium for our in–conversion grains,” Andrew said.
Going forwards, Sophie says, “The opportunity is now for UK Governments to incentivise the delivery of public goods such as clean water and air, improved biodiversity and reduced flooding through enhanced support for organic farming systems and practices.”
“At OF&G, we believe there’s an urgent need to support domestic production to supply market demand both domestically and internationally so that we can secure a diverse and resilient future for UK food markets,” adds Roger.
There are still threats to the organic sector’s growth, however. Soil Association Certification recently highlighted a “significant omission” in the EU/GB trade agreement around products that are imported from non-EU countries and re-exported, which causes uncertainty for organic food businesses.
“We predict that up to as many as 25% of all our licensees who export to the EU could be affected by this, and if not resolved could mean millions of pounds of lost trade and jobs put at risk,” says Lee Holdstock, senior business development manager.
Lee said it is hoped that a “practical and clear solution” can be found between the UK and EU. Many fine food businesses know the value of organic, with businesses such as BENS Greengrocer, Rhug Estate and Riverford Organic Farmers previously telling Speciality Food about growing demand for organic products. Indeed, as Roger says, “To achieve our shared ambitions of making future agricultural support throughout the UK a success, we must move forward together.”