The benefits of organic farming in the UK

Business Insights

Organic farming is not a recent trend, but it remains a difficult agricultural method to explain and adopt. Currently, organic farming accounts for just 1% of cropland around the globe — but it’s rapid growth has made it an enticing agricultural method for many farmers throughout the UK. With so much land available, farm insurance providers, Lycetts, investigates the advantages of organic farming and how farmers can, and perhaps should, make the switch.

Facts and figures

Many experts sing the praises of organic farming as an eco-friendly process with countless benefits for British wildlife. According to the Soil Association, more than 17,800 tonnes of pesticides were used on British farms in 2015, and 43% of British food was found to contain pesticide residues after government testing during the same year. If all farms suddenly transformed into organic establishments, we would apparently see the use of pesticides decrease by 98% across Wales and England.

What’s more, the Soil Association discovered that there was a 50% average increase of wildlife found on organic farms, as well as 30% more species found on organic farms compared to those on non-organic farms. Evidently, organic farms are working to help wildlife numbers in the UK, which has dropped by 50% since 1970.

What defines organic farming?

A type of crop and livestock production, the term ‘organic farming’ was first coined in 1940 by Lord Northbourne and it is today considered an alternative farming system that relies on natural fertilisers and farming techniques to encourage growth. Livestock, soil, people, and plant organisms are all covered in this holistic system, with the primary aim to develop enterprises that are both sustainable and kinder to the environment.

To be defined as an organic farm, you must not use: artificial chemical fertilisers, genetically modified crops or wormers. Organic farmers use methods including soil rotation, clover and other organic matter — like compost — to develop fertile earth.

Organic farming in 2017

What are the statistics around organic farming in the UK? According to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs’ Organic Farming Statistics 2016 report, the UK had a total area of 508,000 hectares of land that was farmed organically in 2016. In the same year, the total number of organic producers and processors stood at 6,363 — up 5.1% from 2015.

Organic crops and husbandry

Of course, deciding whether to switch to organic farming depends on the type of farm you have. For example, it may be easier to make the transition for arable farmers as opposed to pastoral famers — or vice-versa.

The three main types of crops grown organically in the UK are cereals, vegetables — which includes potatoes — and other arable crops. When it comes to how large an area each type of crop constituted in UK organic farming:

· Barley had a total organic area of 12,900 hectares.

· Oats had 11,600 hectares.

· Wheat had 10,900 hectares.

Regarding other arable crops:

· Fodder, forage and silage had a total organic area of 5,400 hectares.

· Maize, oilseeds and protein crops had 1,700 hectares.

· Sugar beet had had 100 hectares.

When you look at the figures around pastoral organic farming, you find that poultry is the most popular organic livestock type in the UK and has even risen by 10% in 2016 to more than 2.8 million birds — a figure that far exceeds the 840,800 sheep, 296,400 cattle and 31,500 pigs that make up the next three most popular types of livestock farmed organically.

Unfortunately, it’s not all good news when it comes to organic farming. While making up a substantial space, the total area of land that is farmed organically across the UK declined by 32% since its peak in 2008, while the number of producers is down by 35% since 2007, according to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs’ report.

Expert views on organic farming

Seeing a drop in organic farming in recent years is disappointing, especially when you consider the advantages outlined above. So, what is the expert opinion on this agricultural style? John Reganold, a Regents Professor of Soil Science & Agroecology at the Washington State University, and doctoral student Jonathan Wachter claims that organic agriculture is an excellent resource with huge potential. Their assertion was outlined and detailed in Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century, which was a study that involved a 40-year review of science and hundreds of scientific studies.

Reading this study, it’s evident that organic farming is connected with delivering healthier foods containing less, or even no, pesticides than those produced by conventional means. But can organic farming systems deliver more lucrative and eco-friendly yields than conventional agriculture? According to Professor Reganold’s study, possibly not.

The study stated that organic farming systems produced yields that were 10-20% less than standard means of agriculture on average. In support of organic farming, Professor Reganold commented 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.

The professor added that those looking into organic farming should not be put off by this figure. He said:

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

How easy is it to switch to organic farming?

There are clearly many benefits of organic farming, and with a rise in people looking for healthier lifestyles and fresher produce, it is worth considering if you’re in the industry. Here are the steps to becoming an organic farmer:

· Register with an organic control body.

· Fill out an application.

· Go through an inspection.

· Receive a certificate from an organic control body (CB).

This entire procedure before certification can take up to two years to complete, but remember: it’s illegal to claim that a food product is organic if it hasn’t been inspected and certified by a CB. Your organic farming certificate is only valid for one year, but renewal involves a simple CB inspection of your farm, after which your records are updated.

Regulations around farming are strict and EU standards for organic farming are the same. However, it’s a farming method that could transform your success.

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