The organic revolution is sweeping across Europe, with the area of land dedicated to environmentally-friendly, pesticide-free food production more than doubling in the last decade.
Organic farming now accounts for more than 4 per cent of agricultural land in the EU, more than double its 1998 share, according to a new report from its official statistics agency, Eurostat.
And organic land is likely to make greater inroads, as the consumer appetite shows no sign of slowing.
“Organic almost certainly will continue to grow and we think it’s a good thing,” Michael Mann, an EU agriculture spokesman said.
The growth is partly being driven by Europe’s farmers, who are being undercut by produce imported from countries such as Brazil. For many farmers, organic foods are becoming a key way to reinvent their failing farms.
“Farmers are coming under growing pressure from low-cost producers abroad,” Mr Mann said. “They have to be smart and think of increasing profit margins and organic is one way of doing that.”
Conscious of this ballooning market, agriculture ministers from the 27 member states agreed this week on a compulsory logo, to be introduced from 2009, designed to reassure consumers that they are getting the genuine article.
The logo guarantees that at least 95 per cent of ingredients are completely free of chemicals – and imports will be subject to the same rule. But it also permits up to 0.9 per cent from genetically-modified organisms, a level that has angered green campaigners.
“It is a total cop-out by the European Union – setting a level of 0.9 per cent could result in the creeping GM contamination of organic food,” said Ben Ayliffe, of Greenpeace. “It should be 0.1 per cent.”
“Go into any supermarket and they are bursting with organic food, while GM foods are conspicuous by their absence. That’s because consumers don’t want them!” he added.
In recent years, European consumers have shown themselves willing to pay more for organic produce, reflecting an aversion to chemicals and a growing preference for natural farming techniques over the high-intensity production that has been blamed for crises such as BSE and foot-and-mouth disease.
Recognising this fact, Brussels will now provide higher levels of subsidy for organic farming, than that given to non organic fruit and vegetables.
The UK has been a leader in organic farming. In 2005, more than 600,000 hectares of the country’s farmland were cultivated organically, putting it ahead of France, a country more than twice its size. Yet only 3.8 per cent of UK farmland was devoted to organic production, compared with 11 per cent in Austria. The Alpine nation has a reputation as a strong opponent of intensive and biotech farming, recently refusing to follow an EU ruling allowing a type of genetically-modified maize made by Monsanto.
While the Eurostat report primarily compared the 15 nations that joined the EU before 2004, it also pointed out that some of the biggest organic farms now are to be found in newcomers Slovakia and Czech Republic.
Independent News and Media Limited