The amount of UK land that is in conversion to organic farming has fallen by 15 per cent in the first decline since 2014, new figures have shown.
Land in conversion to organic is used as a measure of growth in the sector, as it indicates the future amount of domestic organic production.
The total amount of land farmed organically in the UK rose by 2.4 per cent to 485 thousand hectares during 2019, a figure which combines both fully organic land and land that is in conversion.
Fully organic land rose by enough (+3.6 per cent) to offset declines of land in-conversion but it appears as an outlier in a long-term decline.
The previous year, the total land farmed organically fell by 8.4 per cent, and there has been a reduction of 34 per cent since a peak in 2008. Organic farming accounts for 2.7 per cent of the UK’s agricultural land.
Released every year by the government’s environment, food and rural affairs department (Defra), the data is collected from the UK’s organic certifiers, such as the Soil Association and Organic Farmers and Growers (OFG).
Not all certifiers saw a decrease of land in conversion. The Soil Association, the UK’s largest organic certifier, said it had seen a 14 per cent increase in farmers converting to organic, and business development director, Clare McDermott, told Wicked Leeks the organisation was "surprised" by the Defra figures.
"We realise there is no one size fits all and that some farms do come out of organic, and in 2018 there were some large areas of upland grazing land taken out of organic, which contributed to the drop," she said.
"The decline in overall land in conversion to organic was surprising as we saw a 14 per cent increase in 2019 for Soil Association Certification licensees undergoing organic conversion.
"We expect that the overall decline coupled with the increase in organic farm land may be, in part, due to those farms who were previously in conversion now falling under the fully organic category."
McDermott also said that farmers have been facing a high degree of uncertainty over post-Brexit farm subsidies and trade deals, which is likely to have impacted some business decisions.
She also pointed to the growing sales of organic food as a sign that farmers should be confident in converting. “More and more people are looking for organic products when they shop, leading to the eighth consecutive year of sales growth in the UK’s organic market in 2019,” she said.
“Converting to organic can be a big business decision that takes time to implement, but with high demand for UK organic in both the shops and on farm, there is confidence in the market.”
Certified organic food comes only from fully converted land, a process which takes a minimum of two years.
The news comes alongside an announcement of a new unified campaign for Organic September, the annual month-long promotion of the organic sector.
This year, the organic food sector will join the textiles, beauty and wellbeing industries to promote the benefits of organic to those wishing to reduce their impact on the world, hoping to capitalise on the opportunity for a sustainable transition after the coronavirus crisis.