Organic farmland area up, but feed shortages loom

The amount of land in organic farming production has increased for the first time in more than six years, government figures show.

The statistics issued by Defra reveal the UK’s organic land area rose by almost 2% in 2017 to 517,400ha.

That figure includes 32,600ha of land that is in conversion from conventional production.

It is in this category where the overall area increase has been driven. Between 2016 and 2017 the conversion area increased by 29.4% or 7,400ha to a total of 32,600ha.

See also: UK organic food sales hit record levels

Overall the figures show the organic sector is dominated by livestock and mixed farms, with almost two-thirds (64%) of the area classified as grassland.

UK organic farming

  • Land area – 517,000ha farmed organically
  • Land use – livestock accounts for 64% of organic land
  • Livestock – 2.7% of the UK’s total is produced organically
  • Crops – just 7% of organic area is used for cereals

Organic sheep production increased by 5.5% to 887,000 head, while the UK’s organic pig herd jumped by 86.9% from 31,000 to almost 59,000 head in 12 months to the end of 2017.

However, cattle numbers dropped by 7.4%, down from close to 295,000 to 275,000 head over the same period.

The proportion of land under organic cereal production also fell. Defra’s figures showed 7% of UK organic land was used to grow cereals in 2017, a decline of 2.6% to 37,400ha.

But this figure is expected to return to its pre-2016 level over the next 12 months, with 2,000ha currently under conversion from conventionally farmed systems.

More arable needed

Organic farming bodies welcomed the overall picture – especially the increase in land under conversion.

But they called for more arable farmers to join the sector and help meet growing demand.

Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G) chief executive Roger Kerr said: “More shoppers than ever are looking to buy organic food, and with figures showing a 29.4% increase in UK land currently under organic conversion, it suggests more land will become fully organic in the coming years, which is hugely positive for the sector.”

Although the in-conversion cereal area figures indicate a recovery to 2016 organic production levels, Mr Kerr urged more growers to join the sector.

Demand for organic arable products outstripped supply and more growers were needed to boost home-grown production and substitute imports, he said.

“By importing organic cereals we are effectively exporting biological diversity and not providing British organic brands with enough home-grown organic crops.

“This and other details where the market is not sufficiently supporting UK organic food production can be helped by further government support to help develop this vital part of the UK farming landscape,” Mr Kerr said.

Feed shortage

Organic trade body the Soil Association also urged a bigger take-up in the arable sector.

The organisation said it was concerned about a shortage of production in the arable sector – in particular for animal feed.

“As the UK organic food market continues to grow – with meat, fish and poultry sales up 4.1% in 2017 – so too does the demand for organic animal feed,” a Soil Association statement said.

“Our recent Organic Arable report, released last month, reveals that demand for UK-grown organic feed currently significantly outstrips supply, presenting large opportunities for arable farmers considering organic conversion.”

The organisation’s chief executive, Martin Sawyer, added that while the sector had demonstrated market growth, more support was needed to help British farmers meet demand.