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Upping the ante in the organic numbers game

Date Published: 17/08/2011

Statistics; love them or loathe them, we’re stuck with them. In fact, we lap them up and bandy them around every day in one way or another. Yet we can also be quick to dismiss them if they don’t fit a particular argument.

Useless stats - as good as no stats
Statistics that don't help are almost as bad as no statistics

Many a wag through history has come up with a cutting and pithy dismissal of statistics or the people who produce and use them. Mark Twain comes most quickly to mind, having been attributed as saying: “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” (Yes, yes, an oldie – but a goodie)

Where on earth are we going with this? Well, last week saw the publication of the latest UK organic stats, by Defra. We trotted them out in our previous post because they were newly released and therefore newsworthy. That, however, is not to say we didn’t have a problem with them.

The underlying figures are good – they come from the organic control bodies themselves (i.e. us and the rest), so there’s no suggestion of any of Mr Twain’s “lies”. The numbers are a straightforward dump of every organic farmer, their enterprise, their livestock numbers, crop types, land areas, etc. In that way, they are factual and provide a comparison to years-gone-by as a performance benchmark for the sector.

As with any statistics, what the numbers tell us is never the whole story behind what drives them. Figures can move up and down for so many reasons and there’s a “long tail” to organics, caused by the need for farms to convert; it takes time to get into and no time to get out of. But that’s still not what bothers us about these figures.

Our concern with the annual, official UK organic statistics is that they are too old when we get them. Successful people will tell you that you cannot run an effective business without keeping a close eye on the numbers. In a business like farming and food production, you desperately need to know where there might be over and under supply, where the market is expanding and contracting and what your customers might want next year.

The figures the UK organic statistics are based on are generated at the end of December each year, though Defra also gets a monthly update from control bodies such as ourselves (which, believe us, takes no little effort). But by the time that information is collated, written up and released we’re into August the following year. In effect, all we’re getting is a snapshot of a time long past – and that’s no way to run any business.

On the basis that the figures go to Defra monthly (and if any improvement in that process is needed, we’ll happily play our part) we very strongly believe the organic sector should be seeing the results on a far more regular basis. Monthly would be good, quarterly would still be a vast improvement on what we get now.

To be fair to Defra’s stats folk, we have raised this with them and they are making positive noises, while explaining there is quite a bit of work to do to get to that point. They even took the time to single out OF&Gs’ efficiency in playing its part in the process.

There are enough hurdles for any farmer to jump in getting their produce to market and making a return, without being blinded by a lack of good information. Similarly, organic food processors are often smaller than the behemoth corporations they are competing with and anything that helps them plan more effectively, control their costs base and move quickly in the market would be a huge boon to the organic sector.

In fact, good figures benefit the sector in so many ways. Our own, now highly successful, National Organic Cereals conference came out of the realisation that we were heavily down on home-produced cereals versus imports and the event was born in a bid to pull together the industry to try to address that. We can do much more with much better data.

This is critical stuff. So, yes, many of the numbers in the latest statistics were down on the previous year (though not down by anything like as much as they were when the ‘credit crunch’ originally hit) and we don’t see a reason for anyone in organics to be especially gloomy. But if we’re going to move the sector forward we need to be on top of our game and pulling some of those hurdles off the track.

If there’s a quote for every occasion, perhaps this one, from US author, Evan Esar (1899–1995), is more pertinent to where we find ourselves:

“Definition of Statistics: The science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures.”

If you were planning a business strategy, as every farmer and food processor must do, would you be comfortable relying on facts that were only reliable eight months ago?

We’re on this hobby horse now and we don’t plan to get off.