Organic farming in Scotland can go mainstream if we learn from Denmark – David McKay

It is nearly three years since Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency and the Scottish government set ambitious net-zero carbon emission targets in law.

Since then, our food system, which globally accounts for a third of emissions, has come under intense scrutiny.

Our farmers and crofters know they must shift to low-carbon approaches, help to reverse the worrying declines in wildlife and nature-rich habitats, all while continuing to produce high-quality food.

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And as ministers and civil servants wrestle with post-Brexit farming policy, many organisations – including the Soil Association – believe the solution lies in agroecology, which broadly speaking means nature-friendly farming.

Organic is often hailed as a key example of an agroecological approach to farming. To be certified organic, farmers and growers must adhere to a strict set of standards that are enshrined in UK and EU law. This includes a ban on chemical pesticides or fertilisers and animal welfare rules such as limiting the size of flocks or herds and ensuring animals have access to the outdoors.

The use of nature-based methods to fight pests and diseases and protecting soil health, so that it supports wildlife and absorbs more carbon, have always been central to organic farming.

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And many people now believe that organic’s time has come. There is certainly a sense of momentum behind the sector here in Scotland.

Organically farmed animals are reared to standards that include giving them access to the outdoors (Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The SNP-Green Scottish government pledged to at least double the amount of land farmed organically in Scotland by the end of the current parliament in 2026 and has committed to develop a new organic food and farming action plan to drive growth in the sector.

Ministers have also extended the agri-environment climate scheme, which includes payments to help farmers switch to organic and opened for applications yesterday, up to 2024.

And shoppers, as well as politicians, are also recognising the benefits of organic.

Data supplied to the Scottish government by Kantar suggests that the organic food and drink market is currently worth £79 million in Scotland – with sales increasing by 6.2 per cent last year.

That is reflected in the wider UK market – worth £2.79 billion with record growth in 2020 of 12.6 per cent – partly caused by people turning to organic box schemes during the pandemic.

Despite this success, only 1.7 per cent of Scottish farmland is managed organically at present.

If Scottish shoppers are indeed buying more organic food, then much of that increase in demand is being met by imports from the rest of the UK and abroad. Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon is right in saying that more of that produce should be grown here in Scotland.

Organic farming can help government reach its climate targets. Much of the debate about future policy is framed around targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of the drive to reach net zero by 2045 – including a 75 per cent reduction by 2030 relative to 1990 levels.

A WWF Scotland report from 2019 found that organic farming offered the “highest single emissions reduction opportunity”, and evidence shows organic farms have 50 per cent more wildlife and 44 per cent more soil carbon.

The EU has placed organics at the heart of its Green New Deal, with a target of reaching 25 per cent of land farmed organically by 2030.

The Scottish targets may not be quite as ambitious, but there is an explicit, public commitment to organic – contrary to the situation in England where the Environment Secretary appears unable to even mention the ‘o’ word when discussing the UK government’s vision for farming and land use.

And the organic movement in Scotland is willing to do all it can to help grow the sector. The Scottish Organic Stakeholders Group, a mix of farmers, growers, industry bodies, NGOs and academic institutions, is already working closely with government on this issue.

Scotland can also learn lessons from other countries with more developed organic markets.

Denmark boasts the most pro-organic consumers in the world, with three out of four buying organic food every week. That success did not happen overnight, however.

It was the result of strong political commitment, a co-ordinated marketing strategy for Danish produce and close partnership working between the public and private sector over several decades.

So, after many decades as a niche market in Scotland, how can organic go mainstream?

First, the Scottish government must set out a coherent strategy to grow the sector. That must include investment in training and advisory services, as well as research and innovation that supports this way of farming.

It requires market development, support for farmers to convert to organic, and for schools, hospitals and other public settings to serve more organic, Scottish-grown food.

That means the government must follow through on its pledge to expand the Food for Life Scotland programme, which is now adopted by more than half of Scottish councils.

Ministers are also exploring the use of the Food for Life model in the Scottish NHS, the new National Care Service and in other public settings such as prisons, colleges and universities.

That commitment to using government buying power can help to create more demand for sustainable farming – which can then be met by Scottish farmers if done right.

Another lesson from the Danes is to avoid polarisation between organic and conventional farming. Rather than pitching one against the other, organics was simply considered as a different type of farming – and one that can help solve the challenges posed by climate change.

There is a similarly positive story to be told in Scotland around organics.

Along with other agroecological approaches, it can deliver for both climate, nature and public health.

With a growing interest in action to help the environmental, and high-level political support, conditions are now ripe for organics to make the leap into the mainstream.

David McKay is head of policy at Soil Association Scotland

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