Farmers turn away from organic as sales drop

The economic downturn means organic farmers are less likely to reap rewards of premium prices for their produce

Farmers across the UK have been deserting organic farming, or holding back on plans to convert their land to more environmentally friendly farming methods, as sales of organic products have fallen in the economic downturn.

Last year, only 51,000 hectares was in “conversion” – the process that farmers need to go through to have their land and practices certified as organic. That is less than half the amount of land that was in conversion in 2009, which itself was down markedly from the recent peak of 158,000Ha in 2007, according to statistics released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Thursday morning.

Far fewer farmers are interested in turning their land to organic production, despite the promise of premium prices for their produce, after a marked fall in sales of organic goods in the past two years as a result of the recession.

Sales of organic products fell by 5.9% in the UK last year, according to the Soil Association, from £1.84bn in 2009 to £1.73bn in 2010. That continued a decline from record sales of £2.1bn in 2008, and came amid rising food prices overall.

The rapid decline in interest from farmers is not yet reflected in the amount of land in organic production overall in the UK, which has risen slightly. It takes several years to convert land from conventional production to organic production, in part because of the need to stop using fertilisers and pesticides that may still be present in the soil.

That time lag, while land that has been in preparation moves into full organic production, created the small rise in the total area of land organically farmed last year – from 619,000Ha across the UK in 2009 to 668,000Ha overall.

What Thursday’s figures show is that this is not being replenished by new farmers coming on board. As the decline in farmers entering organic conversion feeds through, the overall figure for organically farmed land is likely to stagnate or fall.

“This is very worrying,” said Kirtana Chandrasekaran, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “What this points to is that the UK government is doing barely anything to promote organic farming, despite the benefits of it.”

In England, about 90,000Ha was in conversion in 2007 and 2008, but since then that area has decreased dramatically, to about 30,000Ha.

Organic conversion has fallen in all regions except Northern Ireland, which has only a small organic industry.

In livestock farming, the picture is mixed. Despite widespread publicity by food campaigners on the benefits of choosing free range or organic chickens over the battery-bred variety, organic production decreased last year, continuing a fall in which more than half a million fewer organic chickens, turkeys and other organic poultry was produced in the UK for a year than at their peak production of nearly 4.5m in 2006.

Similarly, fewer pigs are bred organically, with about 47,000 on farms last year, down from a peak of more than 71,000 in 2007.

However, the number of cattle being reared organically is rising steadily, to more than 350,000 beasts last year.

In the past decade, Scotland has experienced the biggest exodus in organic producers, with 189,000Ha either in organic production or in conversion last year, compared with 429,000Ha in 2002. This reflects changes to government incentives in the early 2000s.

The number of organic producers or processors, including arable and livestock farmers, and food processors, fell by 3.7% last year across the UK as a whole, with the number in Scotland falling by 10%.

Farmers turn away from organic as sales drop | Environment | guardian.co.uk

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