(last updated July 2019)
What has been happening in the organic farming sector
For much of the 2000s, consumer demand for organic products steadily increased and by 2008 there were just under 8,000 organic producers and processors and organic land had increased to around 740,000 hectares. At the retail level, organic sales were worth around £2 billion in 2008 having grown significantly during the late 1990s and early 2000s. For much of the 2000s there was strong growth in sales of organic produce through farmers' markets and box schemes.
The organic sector was then hit very hit hard in the late 2000s by the onset of the economic downturn, as many consumers tightened their belts and switched to alternative, less expensive products. Organic sales fell quite significantly in the closing years of the decade but then stabilised in the early 2010s and increased by around 3% in 2013 and by around 4% in 2014. The market continued to recover and the 2017 Organic Market Report produced by the Soil Association showed that sales growth at the rate of 7% had produced sales of £2.1bn, bringing the organic market almost back to its 2007/08 peak. Their 2018 report recorded that after six consecutive years of growth sales of organic food reached an all-time high of £2.2bn. They expect organic sales to continue to grow.
The decline in demand in the late 2000s and early 2010s had an impact on the organic farming sector, with a fall in the number of producers and processors and reductions in both the area farmed and the number of organic livestock. The number of producers and processors stabilised in the mid 2010s and then increased in 2017, when the number stood at 6,586, an increase of 3.5% over 2016. This was reflected in an increase in the land farmed organically to 517,000 hectares in 2017 from 508,000 hectares in 2016, and in the number of organic livestock from 1,172,000 head in 2016 to 1,223,000 head in 2017.
As recently as the mid-2000s a significant amount of organic produce that was sold in the UK was imported, but the second half of the 2000s saw the percentage of organic produce that was home produced increase as a result of supermarkets making a positive effort to source produce from the UK and better targeting of the marketplace by organic farmers. However, the fall in UK organic producer numbers and the area given over to organic farming in the 2010s is likely to have meant that supermarkets and wholesalers have had to increasingly turn to imported produce to meet the shortfall. The increased cost of imports as a result of the fall in the value of the pound following the Brexit vote may benefit organic farmers as supermarkets and wholesalers look for cheaper sources of organic produce, although rising inflation and pressure on consumers' disposable incomes may affect demand for organic produce where it is priced higher than conventional produce.
Although demand for organic produce is forecast to grow, the UK's decision to leave the EU may significantly affect the sector in the future. Current organic standards are based on EU regulations and organic farmers receive financial support under the EU Common Agricultural Policy. Many things are likely to change once the UK is no longer a member of the EU.
Keep up to date with developments
The main certifying body, the Soil Association, publishes regular research into the organic sector and provides marketing support and advice to producers.
For general information on policy within the organic sector, contact:
- the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
- the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland
- the Scottish Government Rural Affairs and Environment Department
You can find detailed information about organic certification and standards, and a link to a list of all of the organic certifying bodies in the UK, on the Gov.uk website.