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Hard to see how organic decline can be reversed

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: July 31, 2013

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Despite avid support from various celebrities, the well publicised health benefits of organic produce and continuing concerns over possible food contamination, the UK organic market is struggling.

Reports published in 2013 have shown that the amount of land dedicated to raising organic produce has decreased, the number of organically reared livestock has fallen and the organic sales market as a whole has contracted; continuing a downward trend that has established itself over the last five years.

Middle income families represent the largest consumer element of the organic market and it is these families that have been worst affected by the current economic recession. Consequently, the 2013 Soil Association Market Report identified that during 2012, middle income families' share of spending in the organic market fell dramatically, with many turning away from the "luxury" of expensive organic produce as household budgets tightened.

With this fall in demand came a contraction of the organic market as a whole, with a total market decline of 1.5 per cent by the start of 2013 (decreasing from a value of £1.67 billion to £1.64billion), thereby following a negative trend established in previous years.

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In light of this market contraction and diminishing demand, it is unsurprising that Defra's 2013 Organic Statistics report details a large decrease in the acreage of farmland dedicated to organic crop production.

The end of 2012 witnessed a 7.4 per cent reduction in the total acreage of UK farmland classified as organic compared to the previous year.

The long-term picture is a rather negative one too, with conversion land (land which must be managed organically for two years, before being approved as organic) dropping by a worrying 12.4 per cent by the end of 2012, clearly indicating that fewer and fewer farmers are willing to commit precious land to future organic production.

This lack of confidence is also replicated in the organic livestock market, with a reduction in demand for organic meat leading to fewer and fewer animals being reared to organic standards.

Poultry was once the most common organic meat purchase but recently demand has dropped dramatically, resulting in a huge fall in the number of organic birds being reared for direct meat and egg consumption. In 2008 there were over four million organically raised birds in the UK, but by the start of 2013 that number was down to just over two million.

The organic pig market has also contracted significantly with animal numbers down from 53,000 in 2011 to just 35,000 by the end of 2012; a reduction of some 34 per cent.

This decline has undoubtedly been aided by many EU states' steadfast refusal to impose agreed upon higher welfare standards in pig farming which UK farmers have had to comply by, with all the associated higher costs of production. This has allowed foreign producers to flood the domestic market with cheap pork; pork that has been raised to much less exacting standards and at a corresponding lower cost.

In the face of increasing populations and ever spiralling demand for food, UK agricultural producers may well find themselves under increasing political, popular and price pressure to farm conventionally; maximising crop production while simultaneously minimising the space and manpower required to do so. If food is short, there may not be the 'luxury' for large scale organic production.

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