Quote: Organic farming is "a trustworthy and realistic alternative toconventional farming [which is] burdened with increasing problems" - ex-EU Commissioner for environmental issues, Ritt Bjerregaard
Organic is not just a fashion
Sigrun Davidsdottir - Monday, 12th March 2001 - The Scotsman
ORGANIC products have found the way into the fridge of the average Danish consumer and Danish farmers are steadily converting to organic farming. With a growing food scare in Europe, Denmark is an interesting example as politicians, farmers and consumers look for something else than industrialised agriculture.
It is not just a political cliché when the Danish minister for food production, the ex-EU Commissioner for environmental issues, Ritt Bjerregaard speaks warmly of organic farming. She has been growing organic apples on a large scale for more than ten years. Although no estimates have been made as to the effect of investment in organic farming or its benefits, Bjerregaard unhesitatingly claims that one of the great benefits has been presenting to farmers and consumers alike "a trustworthy and realistic alternative to conventional farming burdened with increasing problems".
Building trust is particularly pressing with a growing food scare in Europe in the wake of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease. With agriculture at the core of its national identity, Denmark can claim a certain success in diverting agriculture from intensive to organic. Bjerregaard points out that organic farming products will increasingly be in demand as consumers seek products which neither pose health threats nor environmental threats. And she comments happily on the growing interest in the UK for organic food, since export is important for the growth of the Danish organic sector.
Due to environmental awareness and sensible government policies organic farming has been hugely successful in Denmark, as reflected by the statistics: organic milk production in Denmark is nine per cent of the total, compared with less than one per cent in the UK. As to land - six per cent of Danish agricultural land is organic, or about to be converted, compared with three per cent in Britain. The official target is that close to 10 per cent of agricultural land will be organic in 2003. In 1994, 98 Danish farmers switched from traditional to organic farming, making a total of 677. Last year 800 farmers switched to organic farming, making the total 3,100.
But why do organic products enjoy such popularity in Denmark? "Denmark became organically minded overnight," is the most common explanation. It refers to a day in 1993 when Brugsen, a
Danish supermarket chain, lowered the price of milk from 10 kroner a litre (about 80p) to six kroner (about 50p), a level that has mostly been retained. People queued for milk from the early hours and demand outstripped supply. In the course of the next 18 months, 95 per cent of food retail shops were selling organic products. A glance at the supermarket ads makes it evident that a good variety of organic products is fundamental in attracting customers.
But lowering the price was not the only reason for consumers’ interest. In a small country such as Denmark every inch of the ground is of importance and any threat to the environment is taken very seriously. Environmental issues have permeated Danish politics since the seventies. The Danes never turned to nuclear power like the Swedes and the Danish windmill industry is thriving.
The conversion process from traditional to organic farming takes two years, during which the farmers are fully compensated, partly from higher prices from organic products, but also by contributions from the Danish state and the EU, which funds 50 per cent of the conversion cost in the EU countries.
This is in contrast to the British policy, where the budget for support to farmers switching over to organic farming has been under-funded. In just six months the entire budget for 1999 and 2000 was allocated, which means there are no funds available for British farmers until April this year.
In spite of strong political support to organic farming there is no target as to how big a percentage of the farming should be organic. "The Danish government wishes to support a growth in the organic food production, both in Denmark and in Europe," Bjerregaard maintains, "but the government intends this growth to go hand-in-hand with the wishes of the producers and the consumers."
Since organic products generally cost 20-50 per cent more than traditionally farmed products, the consumer’s faith in the products is of importance, according to Peter GÃ¦melke, president of the Danish agricultural council, brought up on a farm and a traditional farmer himself. Also here the Danish state gives its support. "By surveying the organic farming and granting a recognisable label to organic products the state plays an important role in building up that faith," GÃ¦melke says.
In Denmark there is not a wide array of private labels. The bright red Ã˜, the first letter in the Danish word ‘Ã¸kologisk’, meaning ‘organic’, certifies that the product meets prescribed standards. It guarantees that the product comes from state-authorised farms, visited annually by inspectors who employ random as well as appointed inspections to ensure that standards are maintained. Both Bjerregaard and GÃ¦melke point out that the EU regulations and logo for organic farming are for the better and will increase consumer faith in organic products throughout Europe.
But why do Danish farmers switch over to organic farming? Some are idealists, others down-to-earth farmers. "There were many who thought we were the same as Christiania," says a smiling Poul Henrik Hedebo, one of the organic pioneers of the seventies, referring to a group of squatters who in 1970 took over an old military camp, Christiania, in Copenhagen and declared a free state of love and peace. But more in line with good business principles, Hedebo and other environmentalists bought an impressive old estate, Svaneholm, in 1978 and set up organic farming run by a collective, now comprising 69 adults and 40 children.
In spite of high ideals and ambitions the awareness among consumers grew more slowly than the idealists had anticipated. However, the upswing in the nineties saved Svaneholm. Still an organic collective, Svaneholm has come a long way since its heydays of incense and ideals. Apart from organic farming it is now the biggest distributor of organic fruit and vegetables, both Danish and imported. The annual turnover is 28 million Danish kroner (£2.4 million).
But fervent idealists no longer dominate Danish organic farming. Peter Chr. Sivertsen, an easy-going, soft-spoken Danish farmer and the fourth generation at Mannerup, converted to organic farming two years ago .
In 1998 Sivertsen had 75 cows and 700 pigs in run-down sties. When the price of pork went down he saw the chance of increasing the income from milk production by 20 per cent by converting to organic farming. Now he has 105 milking cows in a new dairy, run by himself, his father and two farmhands, not forgetting his wife and three children. When asked if converting to organic farming was the right thing to do, the smile and a clear ‘yes’ come straight from the heart and the purse as well. The turnover is now about 2.5 million kroner (£200,000).
The two hugely different farms, Svaneholm and Mannerup, represent the wide spectrum of Danish organic farming. Peter GÃ¦melke is not willing to comment on tensions between traditional and organic farming. "The relationship between traditional farming and organic farming is good and both are important in their own way. These two fields have a lot in common, such as the importance of research."
With an organic farmer heading the political framework the Danes seem set on cultivating the growing interest for sound products and farming methods, both at home and abroad