More farmers seizing the potential of growing demand for organic, stats reveal
Date Published: 17/05/2018
Increasing numbers of UK farmers are taking advantage of the uplift in sales of organic food by switching to organic production.
Latest figures released by Defra show the number of producers farming organically increased by almost 2% in 2017 – the first increase in at least six years.
The uplift takes the amount of organic land in the UK to 517,000ha – up nearly 2% on the previous year and the first increase for a number of years.
Organic certifier OF&G, which certifies more than half of the UK’s organic land, said the increase showed that farmers were listening to consumer demand and acting on market interest.
In the face of so many policy and trading uncertainties posed by Brexit – and with Defra putting more focus on agriculture providing public goods – many farmers were seeing the potential of organic to offer strong and resilient business opportunities, cut inputs, and reduce costs, OF&G added.
“At current UK organic hectarage our estimates suggest around 300,000kg of synthetic pesticide active ingredients and 40,000 tonnes of artificial nitrogen are consequently not applied on Britain’s farmland,” said Roger Kerr, OF&G chief executive.
“Whilst yields and premiums ﬂuctuate in both organic and non-organic production, variable costs in organic cropping systems are around 40% of non-organic.
“The working capital requirement on organic farms is consequently only 35-40% of non-organic – something which is important given the uncertainties around Brexit.
“What’s more, more shoppers than ever are looking to buy organic food, and with the report showing a 29.4% increase in UK land currently under organic conversion, it suggests more land will become fully organic in the coming years, which is hugely positive for the sector.”
The statistics, released by Defra on Thursday (17 May), revealed there are now 6600 organic operators in the UK.
Of those, livestock and mixed producers dominate, with 64% of UK organic land classified as grassland. According to the figures, organic sheep production increased by 5.5% to 887,000 animals, while the UK’s organic pig herd nearly doubled from 31,000 to almost 59,000 in the same period.
Organic poultry production was one of the other success stories, with organic bird numbers increasing 8.5% to just over 3m. However the figure still only accounts for 1.7% of the total UK poultry population, showing there was still considerable opportunity to expand – especially as demand for organic eggs and chicken was growing, Mr Kerr said.
In the arable sector, Defra’s figures showed that 7% of UK organic land is used to grow cereals, with 37,400 ha in organic cereal production. While the number of organic cereals being produced had shown a slight decline in 2017, the figures revealed an increase in amount of land going into conversion for arable production.
Mr Kerr said this trend had to continue if UK growers are to satisfy growing demand for home-grown organic cereals. “By importing organic cereals we are effectively exporting biological diversity and not providing British organic brands with enough British organic crops,” he said.
“This and other details where the market is not sufficiently supporting UK organic food production can be helped by further government support to help develop this vital part of the UK farming landscape.”
Meanwhile the figures revealed the number of alternative arable crops such as beans and peas has increased, showing that organic producers are prepared to look at alternative crops as a way to make money.
“Many of our licensees have developed very close relationships with processors to develop new and innovative products which offer them good margins on conventional arable crops,” said Mr Kerr.
“By looking at their production systems creatively, they have come up with solutions which not only ensures their business’ profitability, but also meets demands of increasingly discerning consumers.”
The report showed that organic woodland has also increased by more than 21%, an increase which has arisen partly due to remapping UK farmland, but also due to renewed interest in agro-forestry.
“Many organic livestock and mixed producers have planted trees and woodland so they can offer shade and protection to their animals while utilising the pasture underneath the tree canopy,” Mr Kerr said.
“Organic farmers understand the benefit of a whole farm approach to producing food. Each element on the farm supports the system giving them a stable base to build from.
“Above all, this latest report shows that there is considerable progress being made in organic production in the UK.
“The challenge now is to continue to build on meeting consumer demand, and building profitable and resilient farm businesses in the process.”
The 2017 organic farming statistics for the UK were published by Defra on Thursday 17 May. The full statistics can be found on the Defra website: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/organic-farming-statistics-2017