The organic farming sector has grown rapidly over the past ten years, to about 500,000 new hectares every year, according to EU statistics.
Both the number of organic farm holdings and area grew by more than half between 2003 and 2010.
In 2011, the European Union had 9.6 million hectares of organic farming land. The year before, there were more than 186,000 of such farms registered across the then 27-country bloc.
Organic farming is defined as food production which has a minimal impact on the environment by operating as naturally as possible.
The EU has standards for organic farming, including the use of chemicals, in pesticides, fertilisers and animal medication, as well as the protection of animal welfare. Genetically modified organisms are not allowed to be used in organic agriculture.
Data shows that organic farmers are generally younger than the average conventional farmers in the EU. In 2010, some 61.3% of organic farmers were under 55, compared to 44.2% in the non-organic agriculture.
More organic farms in older EU countries
The majority of holdings (83%) and land (78%) used for organic farming were in the 15 ‘older’ member states, those that joined the European Union before 2004, such as France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the UK.
The EU attributes the greater share to national and European legislation.
The 12 countries that have joined the EU since 2004, excluding Croatia, which joined last year, were also seeing a growth in organic farming, according to the EU executive.
Organic agriculture grew by 13% per year between 2002 and 2011 and the number of farms multiplied by ten times between 2003 and 2010.
Permanent pasture accounts for the largest share of such farming (45%), followed by cereals (15%) and permanent crops (13%). Animal production accounts for 1%.
The European Commission released proposals for further rules on organic farming in March, aimed at strengthening and harmonising legislation on the sector.
“The Commission is looking for more and better organic farming in the EU by consolidating consumer confidence in organic products and removing obstacles to the development of organic agriculture,” said Dacian Ciolo?, the European commissioner for agriculture and rural development.
Producers can apply for EU organic food labels for their products so as to inform consumers that their food has been produced organically.
The European Court of Auditors has urged for stronger enforcement of the rules on organic farming. Products labelled as such have been found to contain pesticides, antibiotics or GMOs.
The Commission says that organic food responds to the growing consumer demand “while at the same time delivering public goods in terms of environmental protection, animal welfare and rural development”.
Organic production is an overall system of farm management and food production that aims at sustainable agriculture, the production of high quality products and the use of processes that do not harm the environment or human, plant and animal health.
The classification of a product as organic depends on it being produced in compliance with this system, rather than on the characteristics of the product itself.
The European market for organic food amounts to about €20 billion annually, representing an estimated 1.5% share of the entire food market.