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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.