Organic growing - challenges 'post' recession

The recession bit hard on the organics sector but what are its chances of making a full recovery? Geoff Dixon investigates.

Crop covers - organic baby leaf production benefits from extensive use of plastics. Image:HW
Crop covers - organic baby leaf production benefits from extensive use of plastics. Image:HW

The organic food and drink retail sector declined by 12.9 per cent on a total turnover of nearly £2 billion in 2009. Estimates suggest that this sector is about 65 per cent self-sufficient in fresh staples such as potatoes, cabbages and carrots in our main cropping season, hence imports play a significant role in this market.

Sales of organic fresh produce in the last three months of 2009 dipped by eight per cent in the supermarkets as economising shoppers moved to cheaper lines and cut-price vendors. The main feature of fresh produce sales in mid 2009 to early 2010 has been "trading down". Shopping priorities shifted from the "health market" to the "budget market". Consumers' willingness to pay "organic premiums" fell-off markedly.

Acceptance of organic produce varies widely across the UK. Possibly this reflects the quality and presentation of the produce. Experience indicates that better quality is offered in the south while in more northerly parts of the UK organic vegetables are earthy, poor quality and highly priced. This leads to their dismissal as "yuppie chow".

Rebuilding organic markets will require increasingly rational and scientific approaches by growers because regaining lost price premiums will be very difficult. Restricted spending and increased taxation in the macro-economy will turn into diminished domestic spending in the micro-economy. Organic growers must compete on equal price terms both with conventional growers and imports grown with cheaper hand labour.

There are huge challenges for organic growers. Firstly, their UK yields are 50 per cent lower than those achieved by conventional systems. Secondly, reasons underpinning consumers' desire for organic foods are being questioned. For instance, the Foods Standards Agency recently demonstrated that organic food offers no discernable health benefit compared with conventional.

Studies of interactions with biodiversity suggest the advantages of organic production are less than previously asserted. Professor Tim Benton's research at Leeds University, for instance, indicates that there are more magpies and jays but 10 per cent fewer small birds such as yellowhammers, corn buntings, linnets, skylarks and lapwings with organic systems (HW, 14 May).

Greater balance

The advent of organic production brought undoubted benefits. Not least, those using conventional systems were forced into confronting the biological impacts of their use of pesticides and soluble fertilisers. As a result, huge strides have been made in developing conventional husbandry systems that maintain yield and improve quality while reducing very markedly resource demands and maximising the environmental and social sustainability of growers' methods.

The quality assurance protocols imposed by supermarkets on conventional British growers are now so penal that most crops are grown using quasi-organic systems. A Defra survey showed that changing grassland to organic vegetables incurred net farm income declines of 66 per cent during conversion and 33 per cent thereafter. These penalties and increasingly attractive conventional produce make it very difficult for organic businesses to operate in the major retailing system. They have to rely on using the 10 per cent or so of the fresh produce market outside supermarket control. That leaves supermarkets sourcing from imports.

Overall, organic businesses face a double challenge. Firstly, they are very vulnerable on prices and costs of production. Customers are very price conscious and set to get more so. British shoppers are not alone in this. In Sweden, price is a major regulator of the fresh produce sector and organic items are seen as expensive. Secondly, British quality and image needs much improvement. Bruised potatoes, grit-filled lettuce and diddly carrots are not acceptable solely because they are organic.

Business strategies

Riverford Organics has become one of Britain's biggest organic fruit and vegetable businesses by avoiding the supermarkets and selling semi-direct through its "box scheme", for which it has developed imaginative lines of produce and husbandry methods. Produce reaches the retail customer via a chain of handling and distribution franchises. The company has tapped-into consumers' apparent desire for connections with the origins of fresh produce.

This cleverly avoids the centralising and controlling tendencies of the supermarkets. Riverford's business philosophy is summarised as "expand-without-expanding". Promotion of organic produce and increasing market share are achieved without becoming a large national entity. The company formed a national network of box schemes, sharing market research and information technology and advertising organic foodstuffs as "fresh, seasonal and tasty". Subsequently, the supermarkets adopted all these terms in their marketing.

For example, Sainsbury's "taste the difference" conjures an image of seasonality, especially with initiatives such as the sale of Brussels sprouts on stalks, which resulted in substantially increased winter sales. The only alternative business model for organic growers is remaining small scale and vending through farmers' markets, selected retail shops and up-market restaurants.

Using science

Irrespective of the business model organic growers select, they can only cope with price competition, the demands for improved quality and seasonal vagaries by the application of science.

Riverford is an innovator. For example, it revived rhubarb production - a crop ideally suited for organic growing because its canopy chokes out weeds and it thrives on organic nitrogen - and it makes extensive use of plastics. This approach comes hard to some organic producers who see themselves as preserving traditionalism and cherish out-of-date husbandries. Regrettably, these methods are frequently inefficient and ineffective.

Two key problems militate organic production. Firstly, weed, pest and pathogen competition and, secondly, nutrient provision. Leek yields, for instance, are 40 per cent lower under organic husbandry compared with conventional systems because they are very susceptible to weed competition and nutrient deficiencies, especially in the early growth stages. Production costs for organic carrots are 45 per cent, cabbages 85 per cent and onions 113 per cent greater for similar reasons.

Weeding organic crops relies heavily on mechanical, flame, hand labour and stale seed bed systems. This demands repeated machinery movements, which compacts soil with adverse effects. Recent studies of organic carrots and broad beans found that both crops had restricted root growth because of damaged soil structure. The compaction damage carried over into succeeding crops. Incorporating straw used for over-winter protection of carrots with discs and not ploughing in preparation for the next crop brought more damage. Resultant topsoil quality was poor, producing anaerobic conditions that restricted growth by the next crop and led to emissions of greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide.

Supplying organic crops with adequate nitrogen is very difficult. Normally, this is achieved by using rotations that include several crop legumes and introducing nitrogen-fixing break crops such as clover. Norwegian studies has shown that a five-course rotation including red and white clover provides nitrogen needed for satisfactory crops of cabbages, onions and carrots.

But caution is essential in the choice of break crop because yellow sweet clover returns an unacceptable weed seed bank and its eradication has proved difficult, time consuming and expensive. Techniques such as green manuring and bio-fumigant break crops such as the Brassica caliente mustard supplying isothiocyanate derivatives effectively deal with weeds.

Pest and pathogen control in organic crops tends to exploit competition, antagonism, bio-active compounds or direct exclusion. Neem oil and other products from the Indian tree Azadirachta indica, garlic extracts, granulosis viruses and mating disruption for insects and microbes, resistance inducers, bio-stimulants, competitors such as Trichoderma harzianum or Bacillus spp. and physical barriers are all being employed to control pests and pathogens.

Biological control involving the antagonism of one organism or another is ideal for organic crops. Unfortunately, this is less well developed for field vegetables and fruit compared with glasshouse crops. The basic research needed for the next generation of antagonists is absent and the pipeline of new organisms and husbandries is empty. Substantial opportunities exist for exploiting mycorrhizal fungi and rhizobacteria, but these are not being pursued. There is demand for the use of organically produced seed.

Regrettably, the control of seed-borne pathogens for organic crops is especially difficult. Methods used include physical, hot water, saturated steam dry heat and most recently electronic treatment. The latter, being developed by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is highly effective. However, dismissive responses have come from growers who are adversely inclined towards science-based solutions.

Organic produce can carry human pathogens. Problems develop where solid animal manures and liquid fertiliser extracts are used, carrying Escherichia coli, Bacillus cereus, Clostridium perfringens, Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus or Salmonella spp. onto crops such as lettuce, radish, spinach or baby leaf salads. Sanitisers could be used but chlorine is unacceptable. Ozone is a possible alternative as might be quaternary ammonium compounds.

Organic growing is an established part of the industry. It will thrive or fall by applying similar business approaches to growers of conventional crops and the acceptance of science-based solutions. Additionally, organic growers need to accept their community responsibilities. Shunning herbicides, for instance, can impose additional cost burdens onto their neighbours because of the spread of noxious and proscribed weeds such as ragwort (Senecio jacobaea).

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Professor Geoffrey Dixon

GreenGene International chair Geoff Dixon on the business of fresh produce production

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