Organic farmers must meet strict EU standards for farming, production and processing practices, which are regulated by an inspection, certification and labelling scheme.
Organic food production in Europe is strictly regulated by an inspection, certification and labelling scheme. It is unlawful to call a food product ‘organic’ if it has not been inspected and certified by one of several organic control bodies (CBs).
If you want to diversify into organic food, you will need to undertake a fundamental change in your farming, production and processing practices. For example, organic farming strictly limits the use of artificial chemical fertilisers and pesticides - you would need to use natural methods of pest control, as well as using crop rotation to keep the soil healthy.
It can take up to three years to become certified as an organic producer as per European Community organic food and farming regulations.
Key features of the organic market
Organic farming offers UK farmers the chance to diversify into new farming methods and markets while benefiting biodiversity and sustainability within agriculture and rural communities.
Organic farming also allows farmers to develop professionally by:
- using a range of techniques drawn from the latest research in soil science, biodiversity, crop breeding, animal husbandry, ecology, animal welfare standards, and the preservation of natural resources
- reaching diverse markets through new channels - by sale to leading national supermarkets, local restaurants or specialist organic shops, or directly to consumers via organic farmers’ markets, box schemes and/or online selling
The UK organic market is the third largest in Europe, after Germany and France. Sales of organic products in the UK grew by 2.8% in 2013. The growth stopped the trend of the previous 4 years where the market had seen a contraction.
Independent retailers, specialist, home delivery, box schemes and online outlets have been the sources of the biggest increase in sales. Supermarket sales also grew.
At the end of 2013, the UK’s organic land area was reported to be 576,000 hectares. The area of land under organic management constitutes 3.3% of the agricultural land area
According to the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report for 2013:
- in 2013 sales of organic products in the UK grew by 2.8%
- the UK organic market is worth £1.79 billion in sales
- the rate of growth was above the annual inflation rate of 2%
- growth in the dairy was particularly strong with organic milk sales growing by 3.4% and yoghurt sales by 7%
- sales of organic vegetables increased by 3.4%, while meat, fish and poultry sales grew by 2.2%
Key requirements towards certification as an organic farmer
An organic farming system avoids the application of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, and uses crop rotation and other forms of husbandry to maintain soil fertility and control weeds, pests and diseases.
You may qualify to register your land and produce as organic, if you do the following:
- Maintain the fertility and biological activity of the soil.
- Increase soil quality by multi-annual crop rotation including legumes and other green manure crops.
- Feed your organic livestock only 100 per cent organic feed that meets their needs at that stage of their development - either from your own or a neighbouring farm. Certain exceptions may apply - eg if 100 per cent organic feed is unavailable in your area, you can provide feed from an in-conversion holding. If you cannot get certain organic ingredients, you may be able to include non-organic ingredients approved for use in organic feeds.
- Feed suckling animals only with natural milk, preferably maternal.
- Use livestock manure or organic material - preferably composted from organic production - either from your own or a neighbouring farm.
- Stop the use of growth promoters, synthetic amino acids, herbicides and pesticides in your system.
You can find out about the process for applying for organic certification in the guide on organic certification and standards.
Requirements apply through all phases of food production and processing. For example:
- you are only permitted to use substances from an authorised list
- you must display labels showing where your organic products were farmed
- you must ensure that at least 95 per cent of the produce ingredients are organic to label a produce as ‘organic’
- you must not use genetically modified (GM) organisms or products produced from or by these in organic production
You must use the EU organic logo on all pre-packaged food which you label as ‘organic,’ with the use of national and other logos being optional. A product may only be described as organic if at least 95 per cent of its agricultural ingredients have been produced organically. The EU logo cannot be used on products that do not meet the 95 per cent rule.
How organic farming is different to non-organic farming
Organic farming differs in many areas from standard (non-organic) farming. The main components of an organic farming system are:
- avoiding artificial fertilisers and pesticides
- using crop rotation and other forms of husbandry to maintain soil fertility
- controlling weeds, pests and diseases using appropriate husbandry techniques and where necessary approved materials to control pests and disease
The primary mechanism for building soil fertility is the phase of the rotation in which the land is down to a fertility building crop, normally a grass/clover ley. Soil fertility can be supplemented by using animal manures which meet agreed standards. Some types of soil bacteria can also be used to provide nitrogen to leguminous plants, such as peas and legumes.
In certain cases, low solubility fertilisers or mineral products, such as rock potash and rock phosphate, can be brought in.
Animal husbandry and welfare
You must ensure that all livestock on your approved organic holding live under conditions that provide comfortable and stress-free lives. Their well-being must be built on:
- lower stocking levels than on non-organic holdings
- freedom from being confined to stalls, pens and poultry houses
- access to the outdoors when weather conditions are favourable
- an appropriate diet at all times, including suitable feed and pasture areas to meet their diet and behavioural needs appropriate bedding and litter
You must not permanently tether or isolate animals.
Although you must avoid giving medicines such as antibiotics, wormers and vaccines to animals on an organic holding, some products are allowed on farms where there is a recognised problem or health risk. However, where medication has become necessary constraints will apply to the sale of meat or other products from that animal for a prescribed period during which you are not permitted to sell such meat as ‘organic’.
Use of manures
Livestock manure can be used with the agreement of your organic CB as a supplement where the fertility building phase of the rotation is not sufficient to produce the required soil nutrient level. Where possible manures, which should normally be composted before use, should be recycled on the farm on which they were produced. If they are taken off the farm they must be used on another organic holding. Organic standards strictly control the use of brought-in animal manures from non-organic holdings - they can only be used with the permission of your organic CB and must come from extensive production systems.
The total use of animal manures is restricted to 170 kilogram Newtons per hectare per year across the entire holding according to the amount of nitrogen they can deliver in building soil fertility (this includes nitrogen deposited by grazing animals and is an average over the whole farm). This is about the same as an application of 28 tonnes per hectare, although this may be increased in some circumstances.
Other approved fertilisers such as potassium and phosphorus must come from natural materials which release nutrients slowly. Some of these products may be used on a restricted basis only and the organic CB must give permission before they can be used.
Composting is the decomposition of plant remains and other once-living materials to make a substance which, when applied to land, can help to:
- improve the soil structure
- enrich the nutrient content of soil
- enhance its biological activity
For more detail see organic certification and standards.
Organic production in the EU is strictly regulated under harmonised EU rules.
All foods sold as organic must originate from organic operators who are registered with an approved organic CB and subject to regular inspection. You are an organic operator if you are a grower, farmer, processor and/or importer of organic food. CBs license individual growers and producers.
Protecting the environment from nitrates
You will also need to check whether your land - whether organic or non-organic - is in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) and how this might affect your farm management. You can find detailed NVZ maps, guidance and other resources on the Environment Agency website or you can check whether your land is in an NVZ with the interactive mapping tool on the MAGIC website.
Planning for conversion to organic
Conversion is the process of changing the way you manage a farm to meet organic standards and takes longer than a single season.
You may be able to start conversion - subject to restrictions - by converting an area large enough to achieve a sustainable organic unit.
Before taking any steps you may want to get advice on whether organic conversion is right for you.
You should also consider which of the CBs is most appropriate to your area and needs. Find a list of approved UK CBs.
Once you decide to convert to organic farming you will have to prepare documentation and plan crop and livestock conversion.
A written conversion plan is essential for successfully moving into organic farming. You must also produce a farm business plan.
You must produce a detailed conversion plan and submit it for approval to your chosen CB. Your plan should cover the conversion period and beyond. It should include:
- soil management
- crop rotations
- grazing management
- livestock management/health plan and budgets
At the start of the conversion period you should begin to record all inputs, operations and sales. Your organic certification will depend on your farming practices being audited, so keeping your records up to date is important.
It usually takes at least two years until your farm is eligible for organic status and organic certification. Your CB can advise you further. Some timescales are below:
- three years for established orchards of perennial soft, top and vine fruits, eg apples, pears, cherries and grapes
- 12 months for grass intended for pig and poultry grazing, provided that you have not applied any banned products to the soil over the previous 12 months
- two years for land intended for ruminant grazing and annual crops, eg vegetables, grassland and cereals
- subject to certain conditions, animals intended for meat consumption can be converted
- animals that produce milk and eggs can be converted
- subject to certain conditions, non-organic chicks that you buy in for table production can become organic
- livestock conversion may be a one- or two-phase process
You may choose to convert land first then convert your livestock operations once the land has achieved full organic status.
Alternatively, you may consider converting both at the same time. This is where you manage the land and breeding stock - to full organic standards - throughout a two-year conversion period. Although more demanding, this does mean that as soon as the land achieves organic status you may sell as organic any young stock born three months after the start of conversion.
Under certain circumstances you may be able to reduce the two and three year conversion periods by up to four months if you can show independent proof that you have only applied approved materials to the land for the six months before you registered the land as in conversion.
For more information see organic systems.
Funding for conversion to organic farming
You can get financial assistance for converting to organic farming under the Organic Entry Level Stewardship (OELS) element of Environmental Stewardship. If you are going to apply for OELS funding for conversion aid, you must do so during the first year of conversion. Agreements are normally for five years. OELS also pays for organic management of land and for environmental management.
Registering with an organic control body
A number of organic CBs are allowed to certify organic businesses in the UK, including the production, processing and importing of organic products. CBs are licensed and controlled by the responsible authority in each EU member state. In the UK, Defra is the enforcing authority.
The approved certification bodies in England are:
- Organic Farmers & Growers Ltd
- Organic Food Federation
- Soil Association Certification Ltd
- Biodynamic Agricultural Association
- Ascisco Ltd (including processors)
All of the following categories will have to be certified if they apply to a business which you want to convert to organic:
- farm production including all arable and horticultural crops and livestock producing food intended for human consumption
- processing involving food and pre-packing out of sight of the final consumer, including on-farm processing, such as dairy products, butchers shops, etc.
- organic products imported from countries outside the EU
- animal feeds production
- the relabelling of products at any stage of the distribution chain
You will typically have to complete application, inspection and certification steps to become certified to produce or process organic products. You may want to talk to or download information packs from more than one of the approved CBs to find the one that most closely matches your needs. Consider your market and customers, the quality of the CB’s customer service and the fees they charge.
Once you have chosen a CB the process is as follows:
- read their information pack thoroughly
- get the application pack and manual, which is likely to include their production and processing standards and application forms
- study the standards that apply to your farm to make sure that you will be able to meet them
- complete the relevant application forms - including the conversion plan - and return them to the CB’s office, making sure you have provided all the required information
- undergo an inspection of the farm and/or processing unit/s
- correct any shortcomings the inspector points out and if necessary agree to a further inspection
- receive a Certificate of Compliance and a schedule to it - listing everything your business is certified for - for public display and to give to customers who ask for it
- agree to undergo an annual inspection as well as spot or unannounced inspections
- agree to comply with the penalties imposed following the discovery of any infringements to the standards of your CB
- permit the taking of samples for analysis on a routine basis or where a problem is suspected, eg contamination
Once your farm is registered your CB should notify Defra so that your farm is entered onto the national register.
For more detail, see organic certification and standards
As organic food production within the EU is subject to the same regulations as in the UK you will not normally be required to register with a UK CB unless you process the product any further or if you have warehouse consignments.
The organic certification systems of certain non-EU countries are recognised as being on a par with EU standards and are authorised to be treated as if they were EU imports. If you import organic produce or products from third countries not on the shortlist of equivalent standards you will have to register with one of the UK CBs and apply to Defra for an import authorisation.
Further information on converting to organic farming
You can find further information on organic farming in the related guides along with links to organisations involved in the support of organic farming in the UK.
For more on what conversion to organic farming entails see organic systems
For information on the registration, inspection and certification steps to organic farming, see organic certification and standards.
One way to find a suitably qualified and experienced farm adviser is through the Institute of Organic Training and Advice (IOTA). IOTA provides training and information to all advisers but also a rigorous adviser accreditation scheme. The accreditation was set up in consultation with Defra in order to ensure that it met the standards required of contractors delivering Defra funded advice. Find the list of accredited advisers on the IOTA website
One of the major roles of Defra is to help the farming industry operate as efficiently as possible. Defra administers European support policies that provide around £3 billion to UK agriculture. They also oversee a number of agencies that work with arable farmers, imports and exports of crops and implement pest and disease controls. The Defra helpline is 08459 33 55 77.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) represents the farmers and growers of England and Wales. It aims to promote successful and socially responsible agriculture and horticulture, while ensuring the long term viability of rural communities.
You can read about the work of the NFU.
Case study - how I converted to organic farming
George Perrott is a dairy and sheep farmer on the Clinton Devon Estate in East Devon. The 2,500 acre farm is set on sandy, free-draining soil in a warm location right next to the sea - making it ideal for organic farming.
George’s top tips:
- Look long and hard at whether organic farming would suit your farm’s climate and soil - it needs to be quite dry and you need lots of animals for the manure.
- Ensure there is a definite market for the organic products you are selling.
- Be flexible and willing to accept that you can’t do some of the things you did when you were doing conventional farming.
What I did
Here, George explains his decision to change to organic farming in 2007:
Look at the market
“I decided to convert to organic farming for financial reasons. In November 2007 milk was about 18 pence a litre, while the organic price was about 27 or 28 pence - so there was a big margin. That was £400,000 a year extra income.
“At that time, my entire arable crop was worth around £350,000 so if I didn’t feed it all to the cows in the form of grain or whole crop silage, I’d be better off.”
Register as organic
“A local consultancy firm called Pennywell advised me that organic farming would suit my farm. Firstly, I had to join a certification body - I chose the Organic Farmers & Growers because of their practical approach to organic farming. So I started the two-year conversion process.
“I applied for conversion subsidies of £375 an acre, split into two payments, as well as £60 a hectare per year from the Defra through their Organic Entry Level Stewardship scheme. This compared with the £30 a hectare I was receiving for conventional farming.
“I have to remain organic for five years or pay all that money back but won’t go back to conventional farming as organic farming is so profitable.”
Change my farming processes
“Converting to organic farming was a fundamental change. I had to stop spraying pesticides, putting non-organic fertilisers on the ground and using seed corn dressings, as well as using chemical wormers and antibiotics for the animals. We now grow all our crops on rotation instead of squeezing in as much as we can. It was time-consuming, but it’s straightforward once you get your head round it.
“I used to routinely worm all the animals. Now, I look at the dung through a microscope and if it has no worm eggs I don’t waste money worming that group of animals. I also use some herbal remedies on the cows and use slurry to fertilise the grass which is more efficient than fertiliser.
“Every 12 months an independent certification company carries out a thorough inspection of my paperwork, animals and equipment, including when and how I’ve cleaned equipment to ensure I’m keeping to industry standards.”
Make a profit
“There isn’t as much yield in organic farming but it has a higher sale value. Because I’m not spending money on pesticides and fertilisers production costs per unit are a lot less. It has been the most profitable time in the 12 years I’ve been here.
“I sell the milk and lambs to organic purchasers rather than putting them through farm shops and farmers’ markets, as I produce so much. I have to send documents off with each lamb so that they can be traced back and labelled as organic, so there is a lot more paperwork.”
What I’d do differently
Keep an open mind about organic farming
“There’s nothing I’d change about the conversion process because I had such good advice initially. However, I would be more open-minded. If somebody had said to me five or six years ago that I’d go organic I’d have said ‘No way, not in my backyard’. But it has been a fantastic challenge and totally profit-driven.”
Case study - how I saved money by using solar PV
Andrew Ingram explains how he uses solar PV to generate electricity for his farm, and make money by selling power to the national grid using the feed-in tariff system.
Andrew’s top tips:
- The system will produce 90 per cent of the energy requirement for the farm and the farmhouse.
- The income and the savings from buying my own electricity and what I sell to the grid will generate an income of approximately £10,000 per annum.
PV is a system that rewards investors - you’ll get your money back in between ten or 12 years.
- Listen to audio only (mp3, 6.4MB)
HMRC Tariff classification service enquiry line
01702 366 077
Food Standards Agency imported food helpline
020 7276 8018
Defra organic team import section
020 7238 5777
Natural England Enquiry Service
0845 600 3078
Environment Agency helpline
03708 506 506
08459 33 55 77