OPINION: As UK agriculture faces up to the realities of climate change, the Soil Association’s senior horticulture manager, John English, sets out what role he thinks organic horticulture can play in the future of British production

Food and farming in the UK faces its biggest transformation in 70 years. The escalating climate crisis and catastrophic declines in wildlife mean we need major shifts in what and how we produce food in order to restore nature and decarbonise the sector.

It’s a huge challenge, but we already know many of the answers. Organic farming is the best developed example of agroecological and regenerative farming that works with nature, rather than against it; offers the most evidence-based solution; and can be put into action right away. Organic farms also have 50% more wildlife than conventional farms.

All farmers and growers are facing huge pressures. The horticulture sector is struggling with rising input costs, shortages of seasonal labour, and falling demand for fresh produce due to the cost-of-living crisis. Huge changes are needed across our broken food system to make food from nature-friendly farms more accessible and affordable – and to give all growers a fair deal. But organic and agroecological farming can often be more resilient.

Farmers who are less reliant on increasingly expensive chemical inputs and instead use a whole-farm approach, where nutrients are recycled on farm, are generally more protected from short-term shocks in the market.

Evidence is increasingly showing the value of nature for resilient farming too, especially in the face of changing climate. When combined with crops and livestock, trees can boost productivity by providing vital shelter, and biodiverse habitats provide farmers with predatory insects for pest control.

The price of organic

Organic works in harmony with nature and doesn’t use chemical pesticides and fertilisers, while maintaining the highest standards of animal welfare. This can result in higher production costs, meaning organic products can cost more – but not always. Some products, like milk and seasonal vegetables, can be very similar in price.

Times are undoubtedly hard, but we would encourage people to shop locally and at independent retailers and markets, or to make small swaps if they can. Often you can find organic produce at lower prices than the supermarkets, where the higher price premium charged for organic is also not always going to the grower.

In the case of organic growers selling into supermarkets, generally the higher price premium we see there doesn’t translate into higher margins for the producer. Organic growers are under the same pressures in the supply chain as conventional growers. Margins remain very tight and price increases at retail rarely translate into better returns for growers. The power in the supply chain remains very much in favour of retail.

The situation is better for smaller producers selling direct into local markets. Typically, organic home deliveries, particularly box schemes, are a significant and growing part of the organic fresh produce market.

The Soil Association calls for government intervention in the food system, with greater emphasis on smaller, more local supply chains. We echo the calls by Sustain and the NFU for more fairness in the supply chain for all producers.

The future of organic

Despite the challenging economic context, the UK organic market remains in a strong position. It has seen over 10 years of strong consecutive growth and is now valued at its highest ever level: more than £3 billion.

Recent supermarket sales data shows that all food and drink sales have slowed as the cost-of-living crisis bites and organic is not immune to these wider economic forces. However, we believe that the drive for sustainability we have seen from shoppers in recent years is here to stay.

Our own research has shown strong recognition for the organic logo and the sustainable and planet-friendly credentials that organic products offer, as well as taste and quality. This will become increasingly important as businesses and governments, both in the UK and worldwide, look to improve their environmental credentials, and as shoppers seek sustainability more often.

There has been much uncertainty and slow progress over farm support policy, but it does also seem clear that government will be investing in sustainable farming in the long-term. Last year we saw the payment rates double for producers switching to organic. Countryside Stewardship payments are due to rise again this year, and last year the horticulture conversion rate increased by 50%, with the rate for converting top fruit to organic rising by 113%.

Payments for ongoing management of organic horticulture went up by 90%, and management of organic topfruit increased by 220%. It takes two years to convert to organic and during this time products cannot be marketed as organic, so these support payments are vital to remove some financial barriers for growers wanting to go organic.

The other big obstacle in making the switch to this way of farming is the change in mindset. The sector has effective and well-established methods for managing soil fertility, pest management, and weed control – these are nature-based solutions.

For a grower who has been using chemical inputs, this can be quite an adjustment and the land itself can take some time to adjust, so there may be an initial dip in yields. But once these systems are in place and nature is working as it should, farmers become more self-reliant and realise that the knowledge that they are contributing to the restoration of soil health and biodiversity is priceless.

Production data

When the recession of 2008 happened, the entire organic sector was hit hard as supermarkets removed these products from their shelves. But since 2014 organic horticulture has been rebuilding with encouraging strong growth. We also saw a 3.6% increase in organic veg land area in 2020/21 and a 19.8% rise in fruit and nuts. Meanwhile, demand for organic veg boxes boomed during the pandemic.

Data released by Defra in May last year showed that organic farming is on the rise. The figures revealed that land going through the two-year conversion period to organic rose by 34% in 2021, compared to the previous year. UK organic land also rose by 3.6% last year, following a rise of 0.8% in 2020.

Consumer buying data

Organic sales growth has consistently outperformed the total food and drink market since March 2015, and overall organic food sales remain higher than pre-Covid lockdown. However, the recent combination of high inflationary food costs and the cost-of-living crisis has seen a year-on-year downturn in organic spend – from -1.3% in July 2022 to -2.1% in September 2022.

Notable exceptions to this are organic fresh fruit juice and smoothies, which continue saw growth of 25% from September 2021 to September 2022, and baby food which increased by 19.5% over the same period. Overall market spend on veg is down 10%, whereas the downturn on organic veg is less severe, at -8% in September 2022.

Nevertheless, consumer and policy confidence in organic is still strong. There is a global trend for governments increasing their commitment to growing organic markets, for example the German government has set a target of 30% organic agricultural land, ahead of the EU overall organic target of 25%. Closer to home, the Scottish government has committed to doubling current organic land as part of its just transition to net zero.

Soil Association Certification commissioned a qualitative and quantitative research study to investigate shoppers’ attitudes and behaviours around sustainability in the context of the cost-of-living crisis. This revealed that there is still a latent desire to make sustainable choices.

The survey demonstrated that organic can address many of the sustainability concerns of shoppers. For example, 82% agreed with the statement: ‘I wish food and drink was produced in a more natural way, without excess processing and chemicals’. And 79% agreed with the statement: ‘I am increasingly worried about the state of the natural world and our impact on it’.

International comparisons

Other European countries are also seeing the same current trend of a downturn in organic spend. For example, France is experiencing an overall decline in the organic market and sales of fresh produce. Organic sales of fresh products were down 16.2% year on year in Q1 of 2022 and the overall organic market in France is expected to have contracted by 8% in 2022.

This is an opinion piece. All views are those of John English and the Soil Association. They neither represent nor contradict the position of the Fresh Produce Journal.