Is The UK’s Organic Farming Scene In A Healthy Position?

Is The UK’s Organic Farming Scene In A Healthy Position?

Did you know that organic agriculture only occupies a single per cent of all cropland across the globe? This is despite the fact that the practice has grown rapidly recently.

Join Lycetts, providers of farm insurance policies, as they explore whether a move into organic farming will be a wise move seeing as though there is a lot of land available…

How to define organic farming

Organic farming is seen whenever crop and livestock production has been designed in a manner that will optimise the fitness and productivity of the diverse communities which form 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.

Compared to traditional farming, organic farming has four main differences:

  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 and figures surrounding organic farming

According to the Soil Association, organic farms have been able to record on average a 50 per cent increase in wildlife when put in comparison with non-organic farms. There has also been an average increase of 30 per cent in species found on organic farms when compared to non-organic setups. These figures make for particularly good reading when you consider that the percentage of British wildlife has dropped by 50 per cent since 1970.

If all farming in England and Wales were to become organic, the Soil Association also claims that the use of pesticides would drop by 98 per cent throughout the two countries. 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.

Is organic farming an appealing venture for farmers across the UK though? 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.

The most popular types of crop which are grown organically throughout the UK currently are cereals, vegetables (including potatoes) and other arable 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.

Focusing on livestock, the most popular type farmed organically across the UK has been determined as poultry. In fact, there was a 10 per cent rise recorded in 2016 alone — reaching over 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.

There are some negatives to take away from the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs’ report though. 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.

The potential for organic farming to feed a rapidly growing worldwide population

Despite some negative aspects being recorded about the current organic farming scene, John Reganold, a Regents Professor of Soil Science & Agroecology at the Washington State University, and doctoral student Jonathan Wachter believe that organic farming has to be regarded as a relatively untapped resource with lots of potential.

This conclusion was determined in a study that the pair conducted, titled Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century and published in Nature Plants. It involved 40 years of science and hundreds of scientific studies being reviewed.

Their analysis revealed that organic farming systems can produce yields which were more environmentally friendly and profitable than those recorded using conventional means 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.

Another part of the study did reveal that organic farming systems produced yields which were, on average, 10 to 20 per cent less than those recorded by using conventional agriculture technology. However, Professor Reganold acknowledged 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.”

Becoming an organic farmer — where to begin

The information provided above may well have you thinking about becoming an organic farmer yourself. Before you begin producing, preparing, storing, importing or selling organic products though, the first step you will need to take is to register with an organic control body.

You will need to complete an application and have your site inspected as part of this process. Steps will then be 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.

Take note too that your certificate that shows you’re a certified organic farmer will only be valid for one year. However, renewal will simply involve a CB inspecting your farm and then updating your records if the inspection is a success.

More information about meeting the EU standards in place regarding organic farming is available at GOV.UK. This hub is also the place to read about a selection of funding options that are available which aim to make converting your farm to organic farming practices a lot easier.

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