Organic on the agenda in Parliament

Organic on the agenda in Parliament

New lessons and insight on scaling organic from Denmark

Organic farmers, business leaders, experts and advocates recently spent the morning in Parliament, at an event hosted by Neil Parish MP, the chair of the influential Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, which was organised by the Organic Trade Board.

Taking place half way through Organic September and attended by MPs from all parties, a highlight was undoubtedly an inspiring and challenging presentation from Paul Holmbeck, MD of Organic Denmark. Denmark currently has the highest levels of organic purchasing of any country in the world. 

So why do Danes consume three times more organic food than Brits? It turns out that it has less to do with shoppers than it has to do with policy makers and the ability of the organic sector to mobilise itself.

The main message from Paul was that policy works. That’s the Danish experience and they’re proud of it. There are eight political parties in Denmark and they all support organic farming, even if for slightly different reasons. Over many years now, all Danish parties, , have driven organic policy forward. This has resulted in more economic activity, more jobs, as well as new solutions to challenges ranging from climate change and water quality, to farm animal welfare and local jobs.  

What’s encouraging for the UK, is that the success of organic in Denmark has been largely due to the fact that there has been determination to design policies to help grow the organic sector, coupled with political leadership.

Having said that, there are other factors which set Denmark apart. One reason for the growth in the Danish organic sector is their single national organic label. Moreover, it’s a government-backed label and certification and inspection is done by the government too. This leaves Organic Denmark, the sector body, to get on with promotion. 8 out of 10 Danes have confidence or high confidence in the label and 98% of Danes recognise it. Industry is thriving as a result, with all of the economic and employment benefits following from that success, together with the environmental ones, of course.  It’s a government/industry partnership that really works. That structure is very different from what we have in the UK which is unlikely to change anytime soon but there will be lessons we can take as an industry in terms of one message.

Additionally, the Danish Government takes a stronger stance when it comes to large scale and public kitchens, including schools, hospitals, and care homes having set clear targets for the percentage of organic to be used.. There’s a Danish government label guaranteeing Bronze, Silver or Gold for food standards. While this doesn’t sound so different from the Soil Association’s Food for Life Served Here Award, the Danish scheme rewards staggeringly greater proportions of organic at all levels: Bronze is 30-60% of organic raw materials, Silver is 60 - 90% and Gold is a whopping 90 - 100%. Almost all public kitchens now serve 60% organic. And when milestones are reached, people really celebrate the success, which creates a real sense of pride and helps to motivate others to join in.

Food For Life Served Here has still increased the amount of organic produce being used in food service and in particular in public procurement.  From virtually zero nine years ago when the scheme launched, there is now over £9 million organic used in schools and hospitals and £15 million in food service overall.

Organic is absolutely mainstream and still growing fast: Organic eggs have a larger market share than caged eggs, many shops don’t put non-organic baby food on the shelves, and the majority of Danes buy organic food every week, with 80% of the population overall buying organic. Denmark really is reaching a tipping point. However, before everyone got too excited, Paul reminded attendees that this doesn’t happen by itself and that policy has been an absolute key driver.

He went on to say that another big difference between the UK and Denmark is that organic food and farming has been used by the Government as a tool in its growth and green policies and those policies have been both ‘push and pull’, addressing demand as well as supply.

“It just won’t happen without some sort of state capacity and leadership at a very high level in Government,” Paul said and he explained how people in ministries work together to develop very targeted policy approaches as a result. While that includes payments to organic farmers and those in the process of converting, many policy recommendations didn’t cost anything and organic was often found to be part of other policies. For example, the national plan for water, the green growth plan and the national rural development programme all use organic farming to drive improvement.

A lot of effort is also devoted to developing organic at every link in the production chain, from ‘conversion checks’ for farmers considering going organic, to bringing in top chefs and strategic support for collaboration with retailers. Why? Because the organic sector has convinced Danish politicians that the organic farming and food movement, more than any other sector, creates major environmental and economic benefits in rural areas and this is supported with evidence.

Organic is seen as one big success story and a very visible one too. That’s key to consumer trust as well as political support.   

There were loads of lessons to be learnt for the organic sector here in the UK, and a reminder about the fundamental importance of getting politicians and policy makers - as well as consumers - out onto organic farms to see for themselves what the hype is all about.  

Right now, in the UK Parliament, the truth is that organic farming is barely on the radar of most MPs and certainly not among their top priorities. With the Agriculture Bill on the horizon, the coming months provide a historic opportunity for us all to change that and to help the organic sector develop and grow. 

One of Paul’s final comments is a worthy conclusion for those of us determined to keep the organic profile high on the agenda, newly inspired from the stories of success of Organic Denmark:

“Ask not what politicians can do for organic, but what organic farming and food can do for them.”