Conventional farming and organic farming each have their own advantages — the argument is ongoing as to which is best. Some professionals firmly back its growth and others prefer traditional agricultural methods — Lycetts, farm insurance providers, investigate further.

Organic farming accounts for only 1% of crops around the world. But, its rapid growth has made it an enticing agricultural method for many farmers throughout the UK. Here, we’ll investigate what defines organic farming, how it can benefit food quality and wildlife numbers, and how you can make the transition from conventional agricultural practices.

Organic farming in the UK

It’s unknown to many that organic farming has a large presence in the UK. According to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs’ Organic Farming Statistics 2016 report, the UK had a total area of 508,000 hectares of land that was farmed organically in 2016. In the same year, the total number of organic producers and processors stood at 6,363 — up 5.1% from 2015.

There is a different side to organic farming that recent figures have shown. While making up a substantial space, the total area of land that is farmed organically across the UK declined by 32% since its peak in 2008, while the number of producers is down by 35% since 2007, according to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs’ report.

What is organic farming?

The term ‘organic farming’ began in the early 20th century, and is today considered an alternative farming system that relies on natural fertilisers and farming techniques to encourage growth. Livestock, soil, people, and plant organisms are all covered in this holistic system, with the primary aim to develop enterprises that are both sustainable and kinder to the environment.

As an organic farmer, artificial fertilisers, genetically modified crops, wormers and chemicals are avoided. Instead, they should adopt methods such as soil rotation, clover (to extract nitrogen from the air) and other organic matter — like compost — to develop fertile earth.

Environmental benefits

Organic farming reaps great benefits for the environment too. According to the Soil Association, 43% of British food was found to contain pesticide residues after government testing in 2015, and more than 17,800 tonnes of pesticides were used on British farms in 2015 during the same year. If all farms suddenly transformed into organic establishments, we would apparently see the use of pesticides decrease by 98% across Wales and England.

It has a positive impact on wildlife too. It was found that there was a 50% average increase of wildlife found on organic farms, which is advantageous when you consider that wildlife numbers have dropped by 50% since 1970.

Organic crops

To paint a bigger picture of organic agriculture, you must look at the farms by type (i.e. arable or pastoral). The three main types of crops grown organically in the UK are cereals, vegetables — which includes potatoes — and other arable crops. When it comes to how large an area each type of crop constituted in UK organic farming:

  • Sugar beet had a total organic area of 100 hectares.
  • Maize, oilseeds and protein crops had 1,700 hectares.
  • Fodder, forage and silage had 5,400 hectares.
  • Wheat had a total organic area of 10,900 hectares.
  • Oats had 11,600 hectares.
  • Barley had 12,900 hectares.

What about pastoral farms? According to findings, poultry is the most popular organic livestock type in the UK and has even risen by 10% in 2016 to more than 2.8 million birds — a figure that far exceeds the 840,800 sheep, 296,400 cattle and 31,500 pigs that make up the next three most popular types of livestock farmed organically.

Expert opinions

What do the experts thing about organic farming? John Reganold, a Regents Professor of Soil Science & Agroecology at the Washington State University, and doctoral student Jonathan Wachter claim that organic agriculture has high potential.

According to research by the professor — the Organic Agriculture in the 21st century study — it’s clear to see that organic farming leads to healthier produce. But can organic farming systems deliver more lucrative and eco-friendly yields than conventional agriculture? Perhaps, although, you’d have to accept the chance that you could produce a lower yield than you might in traditional farming.

In Professor Reganold’s book, statistics reveal that organic farming delivered 10-20% less produce than regular farming. In support of organic farming, Professor Reganold commented to The Guardian: “Overall, organic farms tend to have better soil quality and reduce soil erosion compared to their conventional counterparts. Organic agriculture generally creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions, and is more energy efficient. Organic agriculture is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes, as well as genetic diversity.”

It’s important not to let some of the study’s findings deter farmers from organic farming. Professor Reganold added: “Despite lower yields, organic agriculture is more profitable (by 22–35%) for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. These higher prices essentially compensate farmers for preserving the quality of their land.”

Switching to organic

Organic farming and eating all appears attractive — but how can you start organic farming?

  • Firstly, register with an organic control body.
  • Then, submit an application.
  • Afterwards, allow for an inspection.
  • And finally, receive a certificate from an organic control body (CB).

This process can take up to two years. In addition to this, you will have to renew after one year. However, it’s illegal to claim that a food product is organic if it hasn’t been inspected and certified by a CB, so you will need to go through this procedure to qualify.