Organic farming’s identity crisis: which way for the organic sector – September 2011

Proponents of organic farming have, in recent weeks, publicly lamented the lack of funding and support the sector receives from the UK government. Since the latest published data revealed that the land under organic management in the UK had decreased in the past few years, organic supporters have blamed the political climate for the reduction.

Across Europe the story is a different one; figures released this month by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical body, show that over the last decade the trend across member states has been towards moderate growth, with Austria (where 18.5 per cent of production was organic in 2009), Sweden and Estonia ranking highest.

Railing against the prevailing attitude in the UK, Soil Association Policy Director Peter Melchett has said support for the organic industry in the UK is “the lowest in Europe.” Earlier this month it was revealed that the amount of land undergoing conversion to organic has dropped by two thirds since 2007.

Lord Melchett said that elsewhere in Europe, in states where government support for organic farming is higher, the sector has seen sustained growth through the recession. He claimed that in Britain Entry Level Stewardship payments for organic farmers were the lowest in Europe.

Organic’s recent decline could be caused by an image problem; last week Soil Association Director Helen Browning said in The Telegraph that, in order to revitalise its image, organic farming must lose its celebrity aficionados. She said Prince Charles, Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow were doing nothing for the sector’s image but making it appear elitist. These sentiments have been echoed by Lord Melchett, who lamented the fact that, while French President Nicholas Sarkozy has publicly praised organic food and said it should be available to all, no such proclamation has ever come from Downing Street.

What future for organic?

Exponents of organic farming argue that the focus on environmental sustainability, smaller scale and greater attention to animal welfare, which reduce the need for chemical inputs and antimicrobials make the sector more durable in the face of peak oil and climate change.

Research directly comparing organic and conventional ‘green revolution’ technologies has drawn similar conclusions. Researchers in Switzerland reported that, although yield was lower overall, the organic system was more resilient. They found that yields were up to 20 per cent lower “although input of fertiliser and energy was reduced by 34 to 53 per cent and pesticide by 97 per cent.” The researchers, led by Paul Maeder, concluded such an approach is therefore “a real alternative to conventional farming systems.”

Lord Melchett said he believes that when oil prices rise to $200/barrel, conventional food prices may well overtake organic. He concluded, “The real question is, when conventional is more expensive than organic, will organic suffer in a recession in the way it has?”

Helen Browning last week revealed that September will see the launch of the Good Food for All programme, which will aim to improve food in schools, hospitals, prisons and other businesses through sharing organic principles and showing that “local, seasonal and organic” food can have beneficial effects while remaining affordable for everyone.

In February, the Soil Association released its Lazy Man of Europe report, which claims the UK government can learn from other European states about backing organic production. The report is available here.