Denmark’s organic success story

Denmark is globally recognised for its high percentage of organic food sales and land – so what’s the secret and how could the UK replicate it?

Historically, the debate around organic versus conventional farming has been polarised in the UK. Faced with lofty criticism from the organic sector, conventional farmers defend their current practices and the reality of food production.

Equally, it’s understandable that organic associations might want to shed light on what they deem harmful practices, to accentuate the benefits of their own practices. 

But is this ‘us versus them’ approach productive? Arguably this defensive behaviour entrenches both sides’ positions and makes adopting more ecological practices less likely.

In light of climate change, soil health, and animal welfare concerns, most agree that ecological farming approaches, whether they are certified organic or not, are both positive and necessary. 

And it’s this concept of ‘positivity’ that Denmark has already embraced, with huge benefits for the organic sector. 

As of May 2020, 2.7 per cent of the total agricultural area in UK is farmed organically. In comparison, a staggering 11.3 per cent of land in Denmark is organic

While there are many factors and policies that have driven the growth of the organic sector in Denmark, they are distinct in their specific prescription of ‘positive communication’. 

Paul Holmbeck, ex-director of the trade body Organic Denmark, credits this policy as hugely influential in their success, and one that the UK could learn from. Organic Denmark represents the country’s entire organic sector, from farmers to companies and consumers. 

Paul Holmbeck, ex director of Organic Denmark says positivity is central to their success. Credit Organic Denmark. 

Holmbeck says he understood early on that a polarised dialogue wasn’t in anyone’s interest. “From the mid-90s, we just made a clear decision that we are going to communicate about what organic farming is and where we are going, what are our values and we’re not going to talk about the conventional farmers and farming,” he explains.  

This became Denmark’s policy of positive communication, and according to Holmbeck, this was not designed to be a clever marketing ploy or political strategy, although it has turned out to be both. 

“The foremost reason actually, in the beginning, was that our organic farmers didn’t want to [criticise the conventional side].  They’d rather play cards with their neighbours than talk about what their associations say about the way their neighbours farm.” 

Creating a productive and collaborative atmosphere for change has been at the top of the agenda ever since. “The biggest barrier for farmers [converting], is that they’re stepping outside of the community, and if there’s a polarised environment, that’s even more so,” says Holmbeck.

“At the individual level, we see all farmers as potential organic farmers. If there isn’t a polarised atmosphere, then you can convert to organic farming and you’re just doing a different type of farming.”

Even more interesting is how this policy of non-confrontation between organic and non-organic has worked politically. As Holmbeck explains: “If we’re out there attacking conventional farming, we’re forcing politicians to choose a side, back then and even today, if we force them to choose, organic will lose and we would have been marginalised.”

“Politically, our approach was let’s build up organic farming. We didn’t need to tear down conventional farming to do that: we need research, we need innovation, we need market development, we need farm conversion support, we need advisory services. You can do all those things without criticising conventional farming at all.

Indicative of the movement’s success, Økodag (organic day) attracts 250,000 people in Denmark every year. Credit Organic Denmark. 

But if you don’t talk about the negative impacts of traditional agriculture, why would consumers choose to pay more to buy organic?

Holmbeck says: “You can talk about the fact that there are problems, there are climate challenges. The more organic farmers talk about that, they show their intention to solve those problems, and that’s hugely important in terms of consumer support. We also found talking about this positive agenda really worked in the markets, we have only ever experienced increased sales since the 90s.”

Influenced by the success of the Danes, in 2017, the UK Organic Trade Board (OTB) collaborated with Organic Denmark to expand the organic market together in an EU funded project. According to Paul Moore, executive director of the OTB, communicating to consumers in a positive light was a key theme in the ‘Feed your happy’ campaign.

“That positive assertion was really important, when people are talking about the environment there’s so much negativity. You can almost be overwhelmed by all the things that have to be done and every choice makes a difference and it can paralyse you. What we wanted to do was positively encourage people on that road.” 

Farming cultures 

And it’s not just about how you talk about organic to consumers. Farmers need to be persuaded to join the movement, too. 

John Pawsey, an organic farmer in Suffolk, says it’s not all doom and gloom for organic and ecological farming practices in the UK. “Farmers are becoming more inquisitive and interested in understanding the concepts of organic practices. We’ve certainly noticed more people are ringing up and wanting to come look around the farm,” he says. 

“However, this is usually caveated with ‘I don’t want to go organic’,” says Pawsey. 

This is indicative of how organic can be a ‘dirty’ word in British conventional farming circles, even when they are interested in the actual practices of organic farming.

John Pawsey, an organic farmer in Suffolk, thinks UK farmers are worried about the perception of organic. 

And it suggests that this debate goes beyond actual farming techniques into culture and community. As Pawsey says: “I think farmers are genuinely worried about what their neighbours might think and that they might be exorcised.” 

But how do you shift an entire farming culture? Dialogue and debunking myths are two recommendations from Pawsey, who says: “I’ve invested a huge amount of time making sure I don’t alienate people, and my involvement with the NFU is about debunking myths and building bridges between non-organic and organic.”

With challenges of climate change looming and faced with targets to become net zero by 2050 while continuing to produce food, there is far more that unites British farmers than divides them. 

Perhaps now is the time to put aside these identity issues and the age-old organic versus conventional tropes, and instead focus on practices and collaboration that will lead to lasting progress.

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Leave a Reply

  1. This is so simplistic it is misleading.

    There has never been a culture in UK organic organisations of criticisng conventional farmers. At various times some organisations have campaigned against practices used in conventional farming – such as high use of N fertilisers, pesticides such as glyphosate and neonicotinoids, antibiotic and hormone growth promoters in livestock feed – and generally the public at large and consumers have welcomed these campaigns.

    The reemergence of organic in the 1980s and 90s came about because of public concerns with BSE and other food issues (ecoli, salmonella) to which the organic sector provided alternatives. Some conventional farming organisations dismissed these concerns and attacked organic instead of addressing the issues.

    As for the Danish story you have to consider the different context of the two countries. The Danish government embraced organic production as a viable option – they established an Organic Action Plan, they provided advice and financial support for farmers and infrastructure and they promoted organic as good for Danish farming and markets. None of that happened here despite all the efforts of UK organic bodies to persuade our government to follow the Danes lead.

    Conservation and environmental bodies in Denmark and the EU generally saw and promoted organic farming as the default setting for conservation and environmental protection. UK conservation and environmental bodies have been lukewarm and inconsistent about organic.

    As for the reluctance of conventional farmers to convert; if you investigated this properly you will find that the main issues have been worry of the unknown, concern about the vagaries of the organic market, low levels and inconsistent levels of financial support for farmers and infrastructure and an unwillingness to take on the perceived “red tape” of organic certification.

    The period when there was the largest growth in UK farm conversions was when government provided an ok (but not great) conversion and ongoing support for UK farmers and when they funded a supported advisory scheme (OCIS) which was largely delivered by the advisory service of what is now the Organic Research Centre (then Elm Farm Research Centre). That period did not last long – unlike in Denmark.

    All of this is known and could have been included in the article if basic research had been done.

    One last point which doesn’t fit the so called “trope” of identity clashes. Is that I ran Elm Farm – Organic Research Centre for 30 years and during all of that time we collaborated with conventional as well as organic farmers and researchers on research, on policy and on extension/advisory work. At times there was some wariness but never the hostility and identity clashes you base this article on.

    1. Hi Lawrence,

      Thanks for your comment, great to see this debate expand and hear another side of the coin.

      You raise some good points, in regards to the culture of criticism – you’re right in the way that associations highlight bad practice and quite rightly so. The problem is (and I see this so often in my own faming community) that farmers perceive this as a direct criticism, even if it isn’t.

      I agree with you on the more technical obstacles to organic conversion. Support for organic conversion and farming in Denmark is much higher, it’s enshrined in government regulation and has gov funding. This is in part due to the water pollution and how organic farming was presented as a solution to this problem. The organic action plan too – what a piece of policy! These aspects are crucial to its success.

      However, we cannot ignore how the cultural and social part of the equations have influenced this situation whereby they have this support and government backing.

      I think what Organic Denmark did, was very shrewd in keeping the conventional farming associations onside and not trying to compete with them and make politicians make a choice. This put the foundations for government support.

      Your experience seems to chime with John Pawsey’s and my own. Once there is interaction, myth’s are debunked and perceptions of organic farming are challenged with the reality of it. That they are farmers too, faced with a similar array of problems, much like conventional farmers.

      However, there is far too little interaction in my experience and these myths and preconceptions about organic farming are perpetuated.


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