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30% fall in UK organic area shows producers need access to better tools and technologies

 

David Hill

May 2024

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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The area farmed organically in the UK declined by a further 2.1 per cent in 2023. It has fallen by more than 30 per cent over the past 15 years. When there is so much commercial interest and food industry hype around regenerative agriculture, and the need for more ‘nature-friendly’ farming, this is shockingly bad news for organic farming, acknowledges Norfolk arable farmer and registered organic processor, David Hill. Organic producers need access to better tools and technologies, he argues, and with the UK Government expected to look into the rules around the use of gene editing in organic farming, he urges the organic sector to embrace these new breeding methods to avoid terminal decline.         

 

Ever since the area farmed organically in the UK peaked at just over 740 thousand hectares in 2008, it has been on a steady downward trajectory.

 

Government figures released earlier this month for 2023 reveal a further year-on-year decline of 2.1 per cent to 498 thousand hectares.

 

This means that the total area farmed organically in the UK has fallen by more than 30% over the past 15 years.   

 

When there is so much commercial interest and food industry hype around regenerative agriculture, and the need for more ‘nature-friendly’ farming, this is a shocking statistic.

 

Clearly the organic lobby’s claim to be the most recognised and trusted form of regenerative farming is not cutting through, as more and more British acres ‘transition’ to regenerative practices such as no-till and cover cropping. 

 

Whether or not the UK retail market for (mainly imported) organic food and drink products is holding up, the future economic viability and sustainability of organic farming in this country appears to be in serious doubt.

 

As a registered organic processor, I have a vested commercial interest in seeing the domestic organic market thrive.

 

But in my view, given the myriad of challenges Britain’s farmers are now facing, from spiralling input costs and more unpredictable weather extremes to post-Brexit changes in support payments and increased competition from cheaper imports, the organic sector cannot remain dogmatically and inflexibly opposed to change.

 

And one change on which Britain’s organic industry will soon have a say is the sector’s position on new precision breeding techniques such as CRISPR gene editing.

 

Over the coming years, farmers in England will have access to new gene edited crop varieties following the passing into law of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023. This legislation removes precision bred crops from the scope of restrictive GMO rules, and treats them more like conventionally bred crops.

 

A great advantage of gene editing over conventional breeding methods lies in its speed and precision, opening up the potential to cut years off current variety development cycles, by allowing targeted genetic changes to be made without the need for lengthy backcrossing to remove unwanted traits.         

 

The potential benefits of integrating these techniques into organic farming certainly deserve consideration. Precision breeding could, for example, offer solutions for improved climate resilience, enhanced nutrient use efficiency, and in-built pest and disease resistance, all of which align with core organic principles of minimising dependence on external inputs.

 

But thanks to a quirk in the organic regulations we inherited from the EU, the current organic rules do not make a distinction between GMOs and precision bred (PBO) products. This anomaly has been used by some within the organic sector to claim that PBOs remain the same as GMOs under organic rules, and are therefore prohibited. 

 

There are differences of view over whether specific changes to the UK organic regulations are needed to recognise the new distinction set out in the Precision Breeding Act, since the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act 2023 abolished the principle of supremacy of EU law in favour of domestic law.   

 

But since this reversal of legal supremacy is a relatively recent development, and has not yet been tested in the courts, making changes to the UK organic regulations to recognise the new category of PBOs would help to clarify the position.

 

It is therefore encouraging that Defra recently announced plans to consult on changes to the UK organic regulations, to include definitions for both GMOs and PBOs and extending, presumably, to consideration of whether precision breeding is compatible with organic farming principles and practices.

 

There are no prizes for guessing where my vote would be, and it will be very interesting, when the consultation takes place, to gauge the sentiment among grass-roots organic producers as to whether precision breeding techniques such as gene editing have a place in modern organic practice. 

 

Personally, I cannot understand the logic, or sense, in the organic sector rejecting the use of targeted and precise forms of mutagenesis to produce desired genetic changes, while accepting entirely random methods of inducing mutations, such as bombarding seeds with radioactive gamma rays or dousing them in chemical mutagens like ethyl methanesulfonate.        

 

Let’s not forget that the malting barley variety Golden Promise, a mainstay for Britain’s organic brewers, was developed by irradiating seeds of the traditional variety Maythorpe with gamma radiation, in the hope of producing valuable mutants with altered genes.   

 

So, I am firmly in agreement with Swiss researcher Professor Urs Niggli, a former director of FiBL, ‘one of the world’s leading institutes in the field of organic agriculture’, who has urged the European organic industry to change its position on gene editing to avoid being left behind.

 

In an interview last year with the German publication Spektrum, Professor Niggli warned that by rejecting gene editing, the organic sector could lose its pioneering edge in sustainable agriculture, consigned to producing 20-50% lower yields than conventional farming, and missing out on potential solutions to current problems facing organic producers, such as reliance on environmentally harmful copper fungicides for disease control.

 

If the organic sector does not move to embrace these new breeding methods, organic farming is in danger of being sidelined and overtaken, especially in terms of sustainability.

 

And the long-term decline in the area farmed organically in the UK will prove to be terminal.

 

David Hill farms in central Norfolk growing early generation cereal seed, grass seed, oilseed rape, sugar beet and spelt wheat. The farm also operates three processing plants, adding value to its own and other farmers’ crops. David is a Nuffield Scholar and a member of the Global Farmers Network. A keen advocate of new technology in agriculture, he was one of the first farmers to host UK trials of GM sugar beet as part of the Government’s GM crop Field Scale Evaluation trials in the late 1990s.    

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