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Opportunities outweigh challenges for organic vegetables in UK

As the organic sector continues to increase, Elsoms remain focussed on working with Bejo to develop varieties that aid production in the UK market. Organic produce forms an important and increasing segment of agricultural and horticultural production in the UK, highlighting the need to identify the best varieties for organic production.

Access to the best varieties

Elsoms are investing and focussing more on the organic market in line with the increase in organic production. Stephanie Beavis is Organic Manager at Elsoms, which markets all of Bejo’s vegetable seeds in the UK. She stresses that both Elsoms and Bejo are well aware of the challenges facing growers and are keen to develop varieties which aid production, for example through disease resistance or strong vigour which helps crops to outcompete weeds in the early stages of growth.

“There are two main organic certification bodies in the UK,” explains Beavis. “There are certain derogations which means that many organic vegetable crops in the UK are produced from non-chemically treated (NCT) seed, rather than organic seed.” There are many reasons for this, but key sectors of the industry continue to work hard to increase the area grown from organic seed, but at the same time Elsoms and Bejo recognise the demand for NCT seed.

“Because of our focus on organics, we are always conscious of which varieties from our portfolio would be suitable for organic production. We trial varieties grown from both organic and NCT seed so growers such as RB Organics can be sure they have access to the best varieties for their needs, both in terms of organic production, but also providing their customers and consumers with the very best quality.”

“People want more transparency about where their food comes from and are increasingly choosing locally-sourced products and those which deliver environmental benefits such as promoting biodiversity and wildlife and which help to combat climate change,” points of Beavis. “With campaigns like Organic September the whole supply chain is ideally placed to build on current trends and continue to increase the demand for healthy and sustainable organic vegetables.”

The UK Organic Market

According to the most recent government statistics, the total area of land farmed organically in the UK in 2020 was 489,000 ha, a figure which has been rising steadily over the last few years. Although most of this is permanent grassland and cereals, vegetables form an important element, accounting for 8,100 ha (including 700 ha of land which is currently being converted to organic production).

Stephanie points out that organic production has been increasing steadily in the country since 2014, and that there was an 11.6% increase in the area of land which is being converted to organic production in the latest 2020 statistics.

“Even more positive than the increase in production is the rise in consumer demand for organic products,” says Beavis. Consumer demand for organics has shown increases every year since 2011, and in 2020 total sales of organic products reached a record high of £2.79 billion. “Last year organic sales rose 12.6% compared to 2019 and outperformed the non-organic sector over the same period,” she continued. “According to the Soil Association, which compiled the figures, this equates to a weekly spend of £50 million, and the market is on target to reach £2.9 billion by end of 2021.”

“Sales of organic items in supermarkets increased by 12.5% with fresh produce showing a rise of 15.5%. A general increase in the consumption of fruit and vegetables has benefited both organic and conventional producers. Although the organic sector has always been an important market for us, in response to this growing demand, we have increased our investment and focus on organics, including areas such as seed storage and the way in which we work with Bejo to identify varieties which will work well for organic production in the UK.”

The effect of COVID-19

Around the world the COVID-19 pandemic has changed people’s shopping patterns, and the UK is no exception, with organic vegetable box schemes seeing an unprecedented increase in demand, with some doubling their weekly sales over the course of 2020, while the online and home delivery markets saw average growth of 36% last year. In fact, as demand peaked existing capacity struggled to cope, and while 700,000 boxes were delivered over a six-week period, some estimates suggest that up to 5.3 million boxes could have been over the same timeframe.

What our customers are doing?

Riverford are the UK’s largest organic box producer, averaging between 80,000 and 85,000 deliveries a week, and has seen a sustained uplift in volumes of 50-60% compared to pre-Covid levels. Operations Director Luke King comments, “I do think the trend towards organic produce is ongoing,” says Luke, “During Covid I think the biggest driver was the convenience and the ability got a home delivery. “Moving forward, people definitely want to eat healthily and vegetables are part of that, with the fact they are organic being a secondary driver. We are setting out clear messages to customers, which gives us a good, differentiated story, of which organics is an important part.”

Organic production

UK growers converting to organic production currently get £400/ha in support payments from the government, although the Soil Association points out that the historic failure of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to support small farms of less than 5ha has disadvantaged many organic vegetable growers. This is one area where the political freedom offered by Brexit may help boost the sector.

Of course, not all organic vegetable growers are below 5ha, and there are some very large producers. One of these is RB Organics, part of the Produce World Group, who grow more than 140 ha of organic vegetables, including some 4,330 tonnes of carrots (73 ha), as well as potatoes (40 ha) and onions (30 ha). These are supplied to a range of customers including supermarkets, wholesale supplies and food processors. “We have also exported some produce to the EU in previous years,” comments Oliver Watts, Head of Organic Roots & Potatoes at Produce World.

He points out that the company faces a number of challenges, many of which will be familiar to growers around the world. “Organic production faces many of the same challenges as other sectors,” says Oliver. “These include weed pressures and the availability of labour – particularly for hand weeding – as well as the unpredictability of the weather over the last few years. Like other growers we are faced with increases in the cost of production which needs to be balanced against downward pressure on sales prices and the difficulties in attracting labour.”