Farming News - Scotland 'trailblazing in nature friendly farming' as organic farmland rises while progress stalls in rest of UK

Scotland 'trailblazing in nature friendly farming' as organic farmland rises while progress stalls in rest of UK

  • New Defra organic farmland statistics expose missed opportunities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to capitalise on the growing demand with a third of shoppers saying that sustainability is a key factor for them.
  • After a challenging 2023 for all farmers, UK organic farmland is now down almost a quarter since 2011 while organic food sales have doubled and are seeing renewed growth in 2024.
  • But organic farming in Scotland has seen steady growth for six years, with a fully organic land increasing by 11.8% in 2023.
  • Soil Association calls for radical rethink if organic is to reach its full potential and bring UK organic farming into the mainstream.


New government figures show Scotland is 'trailblazing" in nature-friendly farming with organic farmland on the rise for six consecutive years - while growth has flatlined in the rest of the UK.

The latest Defra statistics, covering 2023, show England and Wales are failing to meet demand for organic food and drink where sales have doubled in the last 12 years and grown by nearly 5 per cent in the last year. 

After a year of many challenges, as farmers dealt with uncertainty over farming policy coupled with the cost-of-living crisis, the English and Welsh statistics contrast with growth across the border. In Scotland fully organic land has increased by 11.8% from 92,500 hectares to 103.5 hectares.

The Soil Association also understands that Scottish Government has seen a surge in applications for support for organic conversion so far in 2024, indicating that farmers are responding to the support on offer, backed up by ambitious targets.

Just 3% of all farmland in England is farmed under organic standards while it has declined by 2% to 4.3% in Wales.

Soil Association Certification Commercial Director Alex Cullen said: "Defra's latest organic land stats reveal that while Scotland is trailblazing in nature-friendly farming, broadly there is a missed opportunity for British farmers. We are seeing growth in organic sales but this has largely been fuelled by imports not home-grown produce – with growth flatlining in English and Welsh organic farmland.

"Last year threw so many challenges at our farmers and organic was no exception to that. Nature-friendly food production has not been easy but the tide is starting to turn with both politicians and shoppers investing in this way of farming. We now want more farmers to join us and the farmers who are already working hard to scale up organic at pace. There are increasing opportunities to discover the financial resilience organic can bring to businesses – alongside benefits for the environment, nature, and health.

"We've seen a real buzz and interest in regenerative practices in farming. And as the most recognised and trusted form of regenerative farming with robust and legally enforced standards – organic is the natural choice."

The Soil Association is urging all political parties to use organic to realise their environmental promises as they draw up their election manifestos by encouraging farmers to transition to organic and supporting the sector to accelerate growth.

Parties can follow the lead being set in Scotland and in Europe where Austria and Germany have gone beyond the EU's targets for organic farmland to grow to 25% and are instead pushing for 30%. And in Italy discounters Eurospin and Lidl have been instrumental in driving 12% growth in total organic market sales.

Organic opportunities

With growing business opportunities, positive market conditions and steps from Westminster, the incentives for farmers to transition to organic are adding up. In the short-term the organic farming movement is looking to identify some key sectors where new organic farmers can see a ready and long-term market for their produce.

Soil Association Senior Farm Advisor Jerry Alford said: "The latest Sustainable Farming Incentives for England stack up to a good deal for many farmers who are seeking to adopt nature-friendly and organic practices. At a time when farmers reliant on chemical inputs are facing unprecedented costs and diminishing margins, switching to organic is a credible and resilient alternative which often comes with farmgate premiums that more closely reflect the cost of production.

"There is concern that Wales is falling even further behind and farmers lack clear support, despite organic ticking their sustainable farming objectives. Welsh Government must act fast to introduce the proposed support for organic farming in the Sustainable Farming Scheme.

"With 50% more wildlife on organic farms, we need to turbo charge growth through home grown produce and bring organic farming practices into the mainstream.

"While there are challenges in some organic farming sectors, there are real and immediate opportunities in others. Dairy, horticulture, and many cereals are in big demand and will ensure a secure future for farmers switching to organic.

"Big suppliers have proven that with the right focus organic can achieve credible market share. Yeo Valley have driven strong representation of organic in the dairy aisles while growers like RB Organic Ltd are growing organic carrots at scale with a significant share of total retail carrot sales in the UK.

"We now need to focus on developing some relatively quick wins like cereals, leeks, potatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, kale and apples where the UK is more than capable of meeting the demand for organic."

Organic dairy sees healthy growth

The recent growth in value and volume is particularly notable in organic dairy. In the 12 weeks to 9 April 2024 value growth in organic dairy significantly outperformed non-organic at 4.1% versus 1.4% and it experienced double the volume growth reported for non-organic at 6% versus 3%.

Organic Herd Director of Membership and Communication Sara Ogborne said: "It has been a challenging few years in the organic dairy sector as costs have soared.  However, the organic market has experienced significant growth in both value and volume.  We are seeing a substantial upturn in consumer confidence as the cost of energy and inflation have started to fall back, at the same time consumers are seeking products that address their nutritional, environmental and social values, values which are at the heart of organic dairy.

"A key UK business driving significant demand for organic milk is Kendal Nutricare, producers of Kendamil, the only British-made Organic baby formula.  Kendal Nutricare has increased its Organic formula business by over 400% in the last two years and Kendalmil is now the fastest growing formula brand in Europe and the USA. 

"By delivering a sustainable price and minimising price volatility we endeavour to enable organic dairy producers to increase milk production as well as encourage conventional dairy farmers into conversion.  It is important that as an industry we worth together to meet increasing demand for organic milk and dairy products in the UK and internationally."