EU goes organic while Ireland lags behind

The recent Biofach organic food trade fare in Nuremberg, Germany, which was visited by more than 50,000 food industry people.

The European Union saw an additional 800,000 hectares of certified organic land in 2017, according to the latest figures announced at the world’s largest organic trade fair Biofach last week.

This brings the EU total to 12.8m hectares, with Spain (2.1m ha), Italy (1.9m ha) and France (1.7m ha) the top three countries in terms of area.

The figures, compiled by research FiBL (the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture) and Agricultural Market Information Company (AMI), show an increase of 6.4% in the European Union

in 2017 — the latest available year. This means that there is now 7.2% of the EU’s farmland area certified organic, some 12.8m ha — an increase in 67% over 10 years.

Austria reached 24% utilisable land area certified organic and Sweden 18.8%, while eight EU countries now have over 10% useable land area dedicated to organic.

The top organic arable crops in the EU currently are green fodder (2.2m ha), then cereals (2m ha) and dry pulses, with France and Italy leading the way.

Italy has the largest number of producers and processors in the European Union, with over 66,000 and 18,000 respectively.

Though not all countries supply data, at least 2.5m hectares of land is in conversion to organic, much of it in Eastern Europe (Romania, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria in particular.)

For retail, Germany and France are considerably ahead of others, with markets of €10bn and €8bn respectively; Italy is way back at just over €3bn in third. France saw the fastest of all retail growth — up 18% in a single year.

The EU’s organic retail market is now valued at €34.3bn.

Organic sales in Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland are currently at 13.3%, 9.1% and 9% respectively. These three also have the highest per capita consumption.

The FiBL report emphasises two trends: “On the one hand, the market showed a double-digit growth rate again… on the other hand, organic farmland growth continued to be slower than that of the market, but it was considerably faster than in the first years of the previous decade … production is still not keeping pace with consumer demand.”

There is, however, more specific analysis offered on this concerning conundrum by Helga Willer and colleagues: “The total organic area is only one factor. When comparing the development of the organic area with that of the retail sales, it is more important to look at land use and crop patterns, the types of livestock husbandry, and, most of all, the production value. It is also important to note in this context that growth rates of more intensive production like fruit and vegetables, or milk production have increased significantly over the past years.”

Looked at over a 10-year period in fact, cereal land area growth is only at 50%, whereas dry pulses along with oilseeds are at a whopping 223% and 231% respectively — vegetables in general are at 69% land area growth.

In the context of faster growth in retail, the number of importers of organic produce into the EU has grown faster than the number of either producers or processors — up by 15.5% in one year, to 4600.

In many of the charts in this 356-page report, Ireland is close to the bottom end of listed countries, often with very small or very unusual and specific countries below us. The exception is in aquaculture: incredibly, only China has larger organic aquaculture production than Ireland globally.

Ireland — along with the Netherlands — has the lowest number of organic producers in the EU: both with under 1800, though in the case of the Netherlands, this represents 3% of the total number of farmers: it’s less than 2% in Ireland.

When a large area of bog is converted to organic, which is reportedly in the pipeline, Ireland will then have a good land area score. But it will mean little in real terms.

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