Special CAPitals edition: State of play of organic agriculture in the EU

In this second edition of CAPitals special brief, the EURACTIV network takes a look at the state of play of organic agriculture in 12 EU countries.

Welcome to EURACTIV’s second edition of the CAPitals, where we will be bringing you bi-monthly updates on all things European Farming and Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), including member states’ progress on organic farming.

In this second brief, the EURACTIV network takes a look at the state of play of organic agriculture in 12 EU countries.

Organic farming is also listed among the voluntary environmentally friendly practices that could receive EU funding in the next CAP under the new green conditionality criteria.

The Farm to Fork strategy – the EU’s flagship food policy – envisages a target of 25% of agricultural land being farmed organically by 2030. But how far along member states are from reaching that target? Let’s find out.

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FRANCE 

In France, 12% of all farms were managed under organic agriculture in 2020, while organic farms made up a total of 7.5% of French arable land in 2018. In recent years, the surface area cultivated organically has increased dramatically, with a positive trend of more than 13% in 2017 and 2018. 

However, the country is still a long way from reaching EU targets for organic agriculture in 2030. The main reason for this is often said to lie with consumers. 

The market for organic products has seen huge developments in the past years, more than doubling in value within five years from €6.7 billion in 2015 to €13.2 billion last year. In 2020, French households spent an average of 6.5% of their food expenditure on organic products.

But despite this, demand for organic products is still thought to be too low to achieve the European Commission’s goals for organic farming – as was very recently illustrated by the early signs of a crisis in the organic milk sector

While French milk producers have doubled their volumes in organic milk since 2017, demand is lagging behind, leading to organic milk being downgraded to conventional milk in order to find buyers in the supermarket.

Accordingly, French farmers’ syndicate Coordination Rurale declared in a statement from early October that “while [we support] the conversion to organic farming, the fact remains that demand is stagnating and remains currently much lower than supply”.

On the other hand, the French federation for organic farming (FNAB) put the blame on the French agriculture minister’s declination of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The fact that objectives were not met was due to the “impossible arbitrage” presented by Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie, the federation claims, calling for the minister to “redistribute CAP money to virtuous systems” in order to make organic farming accessible “to everyone”. (Magdalena Pistorius | EURACTIV.fr)

GERMANY 

In Germany, demand for organically farmed products has been growing, but domestic production is lagging behind. 

Especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Germans’ have developed a bigger appetite for organic food. According to the German organic farmers’ association (BÖLW), the market for organic products reached close to €15 billion, compared to around €12 billion in 2019 – an increase of 22%.

However, domestic production alone falls short of meeting the rising demand. This means that Germany imports around 30% of organic products according to information from the national agriculture ministry. 

To boost production domestically, outgoing agricultural minister Julia Klöckner launched a national organic strategy in 2019. The strategy foresees a target of 20% of agricultural land being farmed organically by 2030, as opposed to the 25% envisaged on an EU level by the Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy. Currently, around 10% of Germany’s agricultural area is farmed organically.

According to BÖLW chairman Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein, Germany needs to ramp up its efforts to contribute to the EU organics target. “The EU target also applies to the new government, which will need to create the conditions for the successful transition of the food and agricultural industry,” he said.

After September’s German federal elections, it currently seems likely that the new government will be formed by the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the business-friendly FDP, who have entered into coalition talks. 

However, the parties hold opposing views on the promotion of organic farming.

On the one hand, the SPD and the Greens want to ramp up the ambition on organics and raise Germany’s national target to 35 % by 2030. On the other, the FDP does not see “any reason” to actively support organic farming, a party spokesperson told EURACTIV Germany. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.de)

AUSTRIA

Austria is one of the leading countries in Europe regarding the share of organic agriculture. With 23% of agricultural land farmed organically, the country is already close to reaching the EU’s target of a 25 % share by 2030.

The organic market in Austria has also been growing. In 2020, organic product sales reached a new record high of more than €2 billion, according to the industry association Bio Austria. This represents an increase of 15% compared to the previous year. Among organic products, fresh milk is especially popular. In 2019, a quarter of fresh milk sold was organic.

However, according to the organisation, the production of organic food in Austria only grew by less than 1% during the same time period. “On the one hand, we see sharply increasing demand for organic products from consumers, but on the other hand, production in Austria is stagnating,” said Bio Austria’s chairwoman, Gertraud Grabmann.

“We need to counter this in order to prevent a loss in added value for our domestic agricultural sector,” she added.

For example, she called for more support for organic farmers via Austria’s national strategic plan, a cornerstone of the implementation of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Grabmann also welcomed the EU’s ambition to foster organic farming as part of the Farm to Fork Strategy. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.de)

IRELAND

With only 1.6% of its land farmed organically, Ireland is lagging far behind other member states when it comes to organic production.

However, while the organic sector in Ireland is a small component of the agri-food sector, the area of land under organic production has expanded significantly thanks to the suite of support measures that have been put in place via the CAP second pillar, according to a recent government report.

Latest figures indicate that there are now some 74,000 hectares under organic production, an increase of nearly 50% on the position at the start of the programme in 2014. But regardless of the recent gains, Ireland is one of the member states that stands furthest from the Commission’s ideal of 25%.

There are currently some 2,127 organic operators in Ireland, of which over 1,700 are farmers, with the remainder comprising processors, retailers, distributors and importers. Most organic farmers are engaged in beef and/or sheep production, with the vast majority (94%) of this being organic grasslands, while the remaining 6% is made up of arable crops, according to the EU organics association IFOAM.

According to 2017 Bord Bia research, categories with the greatest growth potential in the domestic market are fruit and vegetables, and dairy. However, the insufficient supply of organic cereals and proteins is inhibiting the growth of the dairy, meat and aquaculture sectors. 

This deficit in supply also necessitates importation which increases costs of production and therefore impacts competitiveness. 

In a bid to boost the country’s organic production, the Irish government launched a new organic farming scheme back in March 2021, securing an extra €4 million in funding which the agricultural minister Pippa Hackett said would see 500 new entrants into organic farming. 

The support, which is open to all sectors, is specially intended to help farmers with the costs of conversion. However, the Irish Farmers Association has expressed concerns, stressing that any drive to push organic must be market-driven and offer the appropriate amount of support for new entrants.

“A strong network for the organic sector must be developed in line with expansion as organic farming is a very specialist area,” the association warned in a statement, adding that the sector is “currently under-resourced regarding investment, market research, production research and development, and specialised advisory services”.

The Irish Organic Retail market is currently worth €162 million, with a further €44 million generated by direct sales. The market for organic food in Ireland grew by 10.5% in 2017, mirroring a growing trend right across Europe and underlines the opportunities for increased production of organic food products.

Consumer research also shows that there is also a rising preference for organic food over conventional food in the Irish market, indicating that there is potential for an increase in organic production in the country. (Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)

SPAIN

Spain is the European country with the largest growing area for organic products, and the third worldwide, with 2,437,891 hectares in 2020, according to the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fish and Food. Organic crops currently account for 10% of Spain’s utilised agricultural areas (UAA).

The area farmed under organic increased by 3.5% in 2020 and grew 4.8% annually in the past five years. Therefore, the Spanish government expects that Spain is on course to meet EU Green Deal targets for organic farming in 2030.

In fact, among the Spanish regions, two of the main organic producers are almost there: Andalucía, with 21% of arable land farmed organically, and Catalonia at 22%, as underlined by the Spanish Professional association of organic farming Ecovalia.

The number of operators involved in the organic sector rose by 6.3 % to 50,047 in 2020. Spanish households spent €3.185 million in organic food last 2020, around 5% of their annual budget for food and drinks, with per capita consumption was 24.5 kilos. 

Despite this, demand for organic food in Spain is still below the EU average. For Ecovalia, the EU’s Green Deal offers a promising outlook and proves the value of organic farming for European citizens as the only regulated agricultural system that fights climate change and ensures profitability for farms.

In any case, organic producers demand more support within the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

On the other side, the Alliance for Sustainable Farming (ALAS), a group representing a majority of Spanish farmers organisations, says that EU Green Deal targets are not realistic and says it fears an overall “decrease” of EU agricultural production, more damaging for small business. 

“We should not only talk about organic farming. We should also take into account other sustainable models, such as integrated farming and precision farming,” ALAS highlights. (Mercedes Salas Felipe| efeagro.com)

ITALY

The area dedicated to organic farming in Italy was two million hectares – 15.8% of the total – in 2019, according to the most recent data from the national information system on organic agriculture (SINAB) by the Italian ministry of agriculture.

This places the country above the European average, which stood at just 8% in 2018, and ahead of the main producing countries such as Spain, Germany and France. 

From the point of view of production, Italy ranked first in 2019 among EU countries for the number of organic farms.

That year, approximately 1,600 new operators entered the certification system for organic farming, creating a total of 80,643 registered companies. The regions in which there has been the greatest increase in organic farms are those in southern and central Italy.

As with ‘traditional’ agriculture, even in organic farming the surfaces are mainly dedicated to grazing meadows, forage crops and cereals, followed by olive trees and vines.

With regard to the market, the estimates of the national institute of services for the agricultural food market (ISMEA) say that in 2020 purchases of certified organic products increased by more than 4%, with a turnover of €3.3 billion euros.

This means that 4% of food expenses are dedicated to organic products. Among the most purchased there are fresh fruits and vegetables and eggs.

“Some Italian regions such as Calabria, Apulia and Sicily have already reached the European target,” said Francesco Giardina, head of the organic producers’ branch of Italian farmers organisation Coldiretti.

Citing the latest research, he said that the problem is that the Italian supply chain is “very export-oriented.” “We have companies that export a lot and have an excellent reputation in Europe, while the entire consumption is still very low,” he said. 

“In short, organic ‘made in Italy’ is appreciated by everyone abroad, while in Italy few organic products are bought, and they are often imported,” he explained. To tackle the problem, the association is promoting ‘supply chain contracts’ involving large retailers, to promote the growth of the presence of organic products in supermarkets. 

“This is also important to increase the extension of organic cultivations because farmers are encouraged to do so if there is a market that buys the products,”  Giardina added. (Daniele Lettig | EURACTIV.it)

GREECE

Organic agriculture is gaining ground in Greece. According to the latest (2019) EUROSTAT data, organic farming in Greece holds a share of 8.7% of the useful agricultural area (UAA). 

Meanwhile, the area under conversion to organic farming has a share of 3.3% of the UAA – based on the latest estimates. In addition, data shows a 41% reduction in the harmonised risk indicator 1 for pesticides compared with the average for 2011-2013. 

During the pandemic, the Greek organic sector proved itself resilient and ready to respond to consumer needs. The COVID-19 pandemic saw a rise in sales of organic production, while at the same time, many foreign countries, such as Germany, expressed a robust interest in Greek organic products. 

The increased demand created the need for the development of the primary sector of organic production.

In the context of the increased demand, but also of the Commission’s recommendation to triple the amount of land farmed organically by 2030, the Greek government has introduced a series of measures to provide new incentives, boosting the action plan for the development of organic production with a €420 million fund. 

In a statement on the occasion of the EU’s newly created Organic Day on 23 September, the Minister of Rural Development and Food, Spilios Livanos, said Greece is working for the development of organic production and “for a production accessible to all”.

“We want to build a more competitive, extroverted and sustainable primary sector. Organic products are not just a temporary global trend, but a destination,” he stressed, (Georgia Evangelia Karagianni / EURACTIV.gr)

POLAND

Organic agriculture is taking a nosedive in Poland, following the opposite trend than in other EU countries, with the average amount of agricultural land organically farmed decreasing in recent years. 

Between 2013 and 2020, the share of organic crops in Poland decreased the fastest in Europe. At its peak in 2013, the crop area in Poland reached 4.65% – 670,000 hectares of the total amount.

However, in 2020, this decreased to 20,274 organic farms in Poland – 3.5% of the total. The area of ​​ecological agricultural land was 509.3 hectares, and an average organic farm in the country carried out production on the area of ​​27.41 hectares.

This means that if the target of 25% is to be achieved by 2030, the country will face an uphill battle. In organic agriculture in Poland – similarly to conventional agriculture – the production concentration process is underway pushed by changes in the market.

Smaller farms with a small scale of production are often excluded from the market, but try to overcome this by forming production groups.

While it is true that there is a growing appetite for organic food among Polish consumers, Polish consumers still spend an average of only €6 a year on organic products, according to a report from BNP Paribas, which points out that this is still less than a tenth of the EU average.

However, while the EU’s organic plans are a challenge, Jolanta Kowalska, head of the Department of Ecology and Environmental Protection of the Institute of Plant Protection – National Research Institute in Poznań, told EURACTIV that it is also an “opportunity.”

“For Polish farmers, the European Union plan is not a threat, but it is an opportunity. Stable and transparent rules of payment to organic farms can contribute to the growth of the acreage of such a farm and help reach the goal to be achieved in the EU in 2030,” he said. (Paweł Natorski | EURACTIV.pl)

SLOVAKIA

Organic farming is on the rise in Slovakia. Since 2012, the share of organic farming in utilised agricultural areas has increased by 20%, currently covering 197,000 hectares, or 10.3% of the total agricultural area in Slovakia – which is above EU average. 

Up to two-thirds of the organic land is made up of permanent grassland, i.e. meadows and mountain pastures. The number of organic producers is also growing – from 362 in 2012 to 439 in 2017 – which corresponds to the growing demand from Slovak consumers for organic production.

When it comes to the Commission’s aim to triple the amount of land farmed organically by 2030, the Slovak ministry of agriculture takes a rather ambivalent approach, favouring an increase in the support of organic farming while simultaneously decrying the Commission’s proposal as too ambitious.

Speaking about the proposal, Slovakian Agriculture Minister Samuel Vlčan said he considers the transition from conventional cultivation to organic production to be the “right and environmentally necessary step.”

“The availability of organic products in public and school meals should be a matter of course. Every EU citizen should have equal access to healthy and organically produced food,” he said. 

However, if Slovakia were to meet the 25% target, this area would have to more than double – up to 470,000 hectares. According to the ministry, this would cost €350-400 million. However, the ministry has not committed to allocate such an amount for the development of organic in their CAP national strategic plan.

Slovak farmers have a similar opinion. According to SPPK, the largest Slovak agricultural association, organic farming must be financially rewarding, otherwise, it could prove a problem for Slovak farmers.

In the CAP strategic plan recommendations, the Commission points out that numbers of hectares of organically farmed agricultural land represent a good starting point for Slovakia to contribute to reaching the EU Green Deal target. 

“Nevertheless, conversion to organic farming should speed up, since it has stagnated in recent years,” the document states. In 2018, the government approved the Environmental Strategy, which envisages an increase in the area of organic farming to 13.5% of the total agricultural area by 2030. 

According to the new cabinet, however, this goal is now insufficient. “Following the F2F strategy, we will have to adapt the Environment Strategy, whose goals in relation to EU requirements have been unambitious,” Michal Kiča, secretary of the ministry of the environment, told EURACTIV.” 

The ministry of agriculture aims for organic farms to cover 16% of the UAA in 2030. “Between 2023 and 2027, we will also mobilise European financial resources to meet this goal,” the ministry said. (Marián Koreň | EURACTIV.sk)

ROMANIA

Despite being one of the main players in the EU agricultural sector, Romania’s share in organic agriculture is rather insignificant. Around just 3% of its lands were converted for organic production, according to EU statistics, although the share increased a little in the past few years.

After a dip between 2013 and 2016, the total area of land farmed under organic agriculture has started to grow again, with major jumps in the past two years, according to data from the agriculture ministry.

In 2019, the organic area in Romania was around 395,000 hectares, while in the next year the certified organic area grew to almost 469 thousand hectares. Meanwhile, the number of organic producers also increased over the past years, to just over 10,000 in 2020, although still considerably lower than more than 15,000 in 2012-2013.

However, considering the figures from the past years, stakeholders expect the increase in organic farming to continue over the next few years. “In 2020, we have seen more interest for ecological products and sustainability services,” Silvia Maier, general manager of certification firm Austria Bio Garantie România, told Ziarul Financiar. 

She thinks that, despite the challenging period, the obstacles in starting an organic farm business or converting the production to an eco-friendly one are not as difficult to overcome as in the past.

However, the costs of certification are still high, she said, which could explain the general drop in the number of operators over the past decade, as small firms cannot afford them.

While organic farming still offers tangible advantages, such as higher EU payments for farmers and the opportunity to sell crops at bigger prices, the increase in the number of ecological products on the market leads to intense competition which could further lower the prices.

As ecological production is generally lower than the conventional one and prices are higher, there is still the question of who is going to buy these products. Daniel Buda, a vice-president of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee (AGRI), raised the issue of organic farmers’ sustainability in a debate with EU’s health commissioner Stella Kyriakides. 

“The Common Agricultural Policy will offer support for the transition to ecological practices so that food security is ensured,” Buda said. But while the EU wants to see at least 25% of its agricultural land under organic farming by 2030, Romania seems to be far off reaching this target. 

According to a study from IFOAM Organics Europe estimates that a 10% target is achievable for Romania, but would require 4-7 times the current expenditure.

For Romania to progress further, there is urgent action needed from the government in the adoption of the strategic national plan and a special plan dedicated to organic farming, said Carmen Avram, another member of the AGRI committee. 

These plans should include investments in the irrigation infrastructure, but also significant funding for digitisation and precision agriculture, the Romanian MEP said during a conference on EU funding for farmers back in July.

Besides EU support, farmers could be encouraged to convert to organic agriculture by consumers’ demand. According to a World Vision survey, almost 70% of Romanians would be willing to pay more for ecological food products. 

However, just 4 of 10 people are buying between 10% and 30% healthy products and 2 of 10 buy between 30% and 50% organic products. (Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro)

CROATIA

In Croatia, there is a significant growth trend of organic agricultural entities as well as in the area farmed organically, according to data provided by the ministry of agriculture.

In 2013, the total number of entities registered in the Register of Entities in Organic Production was 1,789 (of which 1,608 agricultural producers and 181 processors), while in 2019 the total number of entities in organic production was 5,548 (of which 5,153 agricultural producers and 395 processors).

In addition to the number of entities, in the same period, there was a significant increase in areas under organic production. Thus, in 2013, there were 40,660 hectares farmed organically which was a share of 2.59% of the total utilized agricultural area. In 2019, 108,169 hectares were listed as organic, which is 7.18% of the total used agricultural land.

The market for organic agricultural products is still emerging, but the main problem is the highest costs of those products. Croatian consumers still put the price in the first place, and the choice of domestic product is only in the sixth place.

“For three years now, the Croatian Chamber of Agriculture (HPK) has been expressing concern about new EU policies related to agriculture and questioning whether Croatia can pursue ambitious environmental targets with a reduced budget for the agricultural sector and strong import competition”, said Mladen Jakopović, HPK president. (Zeljko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

BULGARIA

There is a regression of organic agriculture in Bulgaria: only 2.3% of agricultural land in Bulgaria is certified for organic farming, but the sector in the country is in crisis due to a lack of public support. 

In the last four years, the total areas farmed organically has decreased by 27%. The downward trend began in 2016, interrupting 14 years of increasing organically farmed agricultural areas.

Bulgaria remains in last place in the EU in terms of areas for organic farming, followed only by the island states of Ireland and Malta.

“Bulgaria has the potential not just to triple, but to achieve 500% growth in the areas for organic and organic farming by 2030”, Stoilko Apostolov, manager of the Bioselena Foundation for Organic Agriculture, a Bulgarian NGO that collects data on the development of the sector in the country, told EURACTIV. 

The state has very little interest in the market for organic products and does not keep centralised statistics. “The market is not small, the turnover is high. We also have exports. The internal market is growing,” he added.

According to Apostolov, 15% of the agricultural land in the country can be licensed for organic farming until 2030, but this cannot happen only with the current European subsidies. “We also need state support”, said Apostolov.

The Bulgarian government has rejected Bioselena’s proposal to use €100 million from the Recovery Plan to buy organic produce for kindergartens, schools and hospitals. “It would have expanded the sector, but it was not accepted,” Apostolov pointed out, warning that if the country stays with the current support of the state, the sector will stagnate at 3%.

In February this year, the government passed an explicit ordinance and for the first time gave the green light to allow organic food in the menu of schools and kindergartens, but the budget is not enough to develop the sector. (Krassen Nikolov | EURACTIV.bg)

[Edited by Natasha Foote, Gerardo Fortuna]

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