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Overview of the UK’s organic farming

6th February 2018 Print

Despite its rapid growth, organic farming only occupies one per cent of cropland across the globe. With so much available land, it raises the question of would it be beneficial to take the necessary steps to become an organic farmer? Farm insurance providers Lycetts finds out:

Organic farming in a nutshell 

Organic farming consists of crop and livestock production with the aim of optimising the fitness and production of diverse communities involved in the agro-ecosystem. Livestock, people, plants and soil organisms are all covered within this holistic system then, with the primary aim to develop enterprises that are both sustainable and harmonious with the environment.

Differences between organic farming and traditional farming include:

1. Any genetically modified crop or ingredient is banned.

2. The routine use of antibiotics, drugs and wormers is banned.

3. Artificial chemical fertilisers are prohibited. Instead, organic farmers are encouraged to develop soil which is healthy and fertile by growing and rotating a variety of crops, making use of clover to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and adding organic matter — compost, for instance.

4. There are severe restrictions on pesticides, with organic farmers instead looking to wildlife to provide a helping hand for controlling disease and pests.

Facts & Figures surrounding Organic Farming 

The Soil Association has released figures that support the benefit of organic farming.

It has been reported that you can find up to 50 per cent more in wildlife on organic farms and 30 per cent more species found on average on organic farms when compared to those recorded on non-organic farms. These figures make for particularly good reading when you consider that the percentage of British wildlife has dropped by 50 per cent since 1970.

Another positive is that the use of pesticides would also drop by 98 per cent across both England and Wales, as stated by the Soil Association, should all farming in the UK become organic. More than 17,800 tonnes of pesticides were used throughout British farms during 2015 and 43 per cent of British food was found to contain pesticide residues by government testing during the same year.

So, what is the current state of organic farming in the UK at the moment? According to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs’ Organic Farming Statistics 2016 report, the nation had a total area of 508,000 hectares of land which was farmed organically in 2016. In the same year, the total number of organic producers and processors stood at 6,363 — up 5.1 per cent from 2015.

Cereals, vegetables (including potatoes) and other arable crops are the three main types of organically grown crops. When it comes to cereals, barley had the largest total organic area at 12,900 hectares, followed by oats (11,600 hectares) and then wheat (10,900 hectares). When breaking down other arable crops, fodder, forage and silage had the highest total organic area at 5,400 hectares. The next most popular was maize, oilseeds and protein crops at 1,700 hectares, followed by sugar beet with a total organic area of 100 hectares.

The most popular type of livestock on farms is poultry, which is farmed organically throughout the UK and has also seen a rise of 10 per cent in 2016 to reach more than 2.8 million birds. This number is significantly more than the 840,800 sheep, 296,400 cattle and 31,500 pigs which make up the next three most popular types of livestock currently farmed organically across the nation.

Despite this, it isn’t all good news for the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs’ report. While making up a substantial space, the total area of land which is farmed organically across the UK dropped between 2015 and 2016 and has also declined by 32 per cent since its peak in 2008. All three of the main crop types grown organically have seen declines since the latter years of the 2000s too, while the number of producers is down by 35 per cent since 2007.

How organic farming is aiding a rapidly growing world population 

John Reganold, a Regents Professor of Soil Science & Agroecology at the Washington State University, alongside doctoral student Jonathan Wachter have argued that this practice is a relatively untapped resource with plenty of potential, despite the slightly disheartened figures. 

This conclusion was reached in a study titled Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century, which was later published in Nature Plants and involved the review of 40 years of science and hundreds of scientific studies.

In the results found within their analysis, they discovered that organic farming could in fact produce yields which were more environmentally friendly as well as profitable than the conventional forms of agriculture. Organic farming was also linked with delivering more nutritious foods containing less or even no pesticide residues than those produced by conventional means.

However, it was highlighted throughout the research that organic farming systems produced yields which were on average 10 to 20 per cent less than conventional means of agriculture, Professor Reganold pointed out to The Guardian: “Overall, organic farms tend to have better soil quality and reduce soil erosion compared to their conventional counterparts. Organic agriculture generally creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions, and is more energy efficient. Organic agriculture is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes, as well as genetic diversity.

“Despite lower yields, organic agriculture is more profitable (by 22–35 per cent) for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. These higher prices essentially compensate farmers for preserving the quality of their land.”

Transferring from Traditional to Organic 

If you are interested in becoming an organic farmer, you will first have to register with an organic control body, prior to you beginning to produce, prepare, store, import or sell organic products.

This process involves the completion of an application followed by an inspection being carried out and then steps being taken to make you a certified organic farmer. The entire procedure can take two years to complete — at the end of which you’ll receive a certificate from an organic control body (CB) to prove you’re registered and passed an inspection. You will be breaking the law if you claim that a food product is organic if it hasn’t been inspected and certified by a CB.

If your application is successful, you will receive a certificate. The certificate that proves you’re a certified organic farmer is only valid for one year; renewal will simply involve a CB inspecting your farm and then updating your records if the inspection is a success.

More information about how to meet EU standards in regards to organic farming, as well as the various funding options available to help you convert to organic farming practices, can be found by clicking here.