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agriculture and environment

Organic Farming

Patrick HAU, Alain JOARIS (Eurostat)

Since the 1992 reform of the CAP, the number of organic farms has increased dramatically in all Member States. In total, just under 2 % of all agriculture area is devoted to organic farming, on more than 1% of all agriculture holdings. In general, organic farms are larger than average, however the situation varies considerably from one country to another. Production of grass as fodder is by far the most important use of organic land, though horticulture is important in Southern Europe.

Organic farming can be defined as an approach to agriculture where the aim is to create integrated, humane, environmentally sustainable agricultural production systems. Maximum reliance is placed on self-regulating agro-ecosystems, locally or farm-derived renewable resources and the management of ecological and biological processes and interactions. Dependance on external inputs, whether chemical or organic, is reduced as far as possible.

The main advantages of organic farming are generally seen as:

  • the market price for such products are higher (Box 1),
  • the way in which they are produced involves less intensive use of land,
  • the attainment of a better balance between supply of, and demand for, agriculture products,
  • better protection of the environment.

Another advantage is that organic farms are in general, more labour intensive than conventional farms, and therefore, should contribute to rural employment and help keep in business small farms which would otherwise not be able to cope with intensification and global competition (Box 2).

The agri-environmental measures introduced by Council Regulation 2078/92 (see article "Impacts of agri-environment measures") encourage conversion to and maintenance of organic farming, by providing for financial compensation to farmers for any losses incurred during conversion. In the European Union, the organic production of agricultural products is regulated by Council Regulation 2092/91. This sets out strict requirements which must be met before agricultural products, whether produced in the EU or imported from third countries, may be marketed as organic. In particular, the Regulation severely restricts the range of products that can be used for fertilisating and for plant pest and disease control (Box 3), and requires each Member State to be set up an inspection system to certify compliance with these principles.

The principles must normally have been followed for at least two years before sowing or, in the case of perennial crops, at least three years before harvesting, before the products can be sold as organic. During this period, the farm is said to be 'in-conversion’. In this article 'organic farming' is used to refer to all farms governed by Regulation 2092/91, including farms in conversion, unless otherwise specified.

The current Regulation does not yet include standards for livestock rearing and livestock products. In 1997, the Commission presented to the Council a proposal for their inclusion. In the meantime, national policy or rules are being used to define organic livestock products. Farms operating under these rules are referred to as policy supported organic farms.

The European Commission is financing a specific research project 1, to provide an assessment of the impact of the CAP-reform and possible policy developments on organic farming. The data on organic farming in this article is based on the results of this work (Box 4).

Number of organic farms

Overall, organic farming in the EU is still very much a minority activity: according to the Farm Structure Survey it was only in 1995 that the number of organic farms exceeded 1% of all farms, reaching 1.3% in 1997. But organics farms are significantly more common in Sweden (12% of all farms), Austria (9%) and Finland (4%).

However the situation is changing rapidly. From some 6300 in 1985, the number of organic and in-conversion farms in the EU is estimated to have exceeded 100 000 in 1998 2, an average annual growth rate of around 26%, with the greatest increases occurring since 1993. But here also, the situation varies from one country to another.

Although for a first group of Member States, - Greece, Spain, Italy, Austria, Finland and Sweden (Figure 1) - the average annual growth rate has been 50% or more over the last ten years. These six countries represent nearly 70% of all organic farms in the European Community, although they account for only two thirds of all agricultural holdings 3. In these countries, most of the increase has been since 1993. For Greece and Italy the 1992 CAP reform may have been an important influence, but Austria, Finland and Sweden were already well advanced before joining the EU.

In Greece, the rate of increase in the number of organic farms, excluding livestock, has been impressive. Even so, at 3 000 in 1998, Greece represents only 2% of organic farms in the EU, although it has 11% of all EU agricultural holdings. Organic livestock products are not certified in Greece but, in general, holdings with livestock (specialised or mixed) represent only 25% of total holdings.

In Spain, the number of organic farms has been increasing quite rapidly since 1996. With 7 800 organic farms in 1998, Spain now represents 8% of organic farms, twice the figure of 1997, although still disproportionately low, considering that 17% of all EU agricultural holdings are in Spain.

In contrast, Austria, Finland and Sweden, with 21 %, 5 % and 12%respectively of organic farms in the EU are well above the level of their share of all agricultural holdings.

For other Member States, organic farms remain a very minor phenomenon and the situation does not vary much between countries (Figure 2) except Germany, where the increase has been more important up to 1995. The number of organic farms has since then decrease, bringing the total increase since 1995 closer to what has taken place in the other Member states. Although 1993 was a turning point for Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the results of measures implemented by these Member States were not as spectacular as those seen in the first group of countries.

Area devoted to organic farming

The number of farms alone does not give a clear picture of progress towards the Council objective of less intensive use of land. For this it is necessary to look at the area under organic farming or in the process of converting to organic farming.

The area devoted to organic farming varies from one country to another. Italy alone has 27% of the EU's organic land, followed by Germany 16%, Austria 12% and Sweden 9%. These four countries alone account for 64% of the total organic area, but only 30% of total agricultural area.

At EU level, organic farms have a larger area than average, based on 1998 estimates (Figure 3). This is particularly the case for Portugal, where organic farms are five times the size of an average farm, Italy (three times the size) and United Kingdom (two times the size). In Spain, the average area of organic farms more than doubled between 1995 and 1996, but decreased between 1997 and 1998. However, as part of this extra land is in-conversion at this stage, no firm conclusions can be drawn. The available data do not allow an assessment of the sustainability of these increases.

In contrast in Sweden, where both the number of farms and area devoted to organic farming is significant, the average size of organic farms is less than the average for all farms.

The area under organic farming grew even faster than the number of organic farms over the last ten years, at an average of 28% per year. In fact, the growth rate is well above 30% for all countries except the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In general, growth has tended to slow down in the last five years.

Moreover, the average area of organic farms is increasing much faster than the average area of all EU farms (Figure 4). Between 1985 and 1997 it increased by 48% compared to 29% for all the holdings between 1987 and 1995. However, in 1993-94, the number of organic farms increased by 38%, while the organic area by only 15%. This suggests that the large number of new holdings that became either certified or policy-supported as organic or in-conversion were mainly small holdings. This explains the 11% drop in the average area for that single year. The decrease is mainly due to changes in Greece, where the average area of organic farms decreased by 29%, Germany (-20%), Ireland (-19%) and Italy (-6%). For these four countries, 1993-94 was the first time since 1985 that the average area of organic farms did not increase. This suggests that the 1992 CAP reforms and the agrienvironmental measures were instrumental in persuading small farmers, who had not previously felt they could afford to take the risk, to convert to organic farming.

In 1994-95, the average area remained unchanged for EU 15, but it increased again by 6% between 1995 and 1996 and remaind stable in 1997.

The ranking of individual Member States, based on their contribution to the total Community organic land, has also changed significantly in the last ten years (Figure 5, Figure 6). In 1985, 45% of all EU15 organic land was in France, compared to 7% in 1997. The United Kingdom, which, at 6%, ranked third in 1985, is relegated to ninth position in 1997, with less organic land than Denmark, although its total agricultural area is six times greater. On the other hand, in Italy, Austria and Spain, organic land has increased at a very similar pace, putting these countries into the top four. 

Organic production

The figures on area under organic farming, or "in-conversion", only reveal how much land is used. To complete the picture it is important to know what is produced on the land. Some statistics on this are available, but there are no official reporting requirements for such data, and availability and quality varies considerably between countries. Given the interest in following progress in this topic, the Council has decided to gather more detailed information in the next Farm Structure Census that will take place in 1999/2000. The data currently available are summarised below.


The EU Organic Farming Regulation does not yet extend to livestock and livestock products. As a result, information on organic livestock farms is sparse, and does not allow a Community-wide comparison. The following table reflects the available data from the study 4 funded by the European Commission (Table 1).

The proportion of nationally certified organic livestock in total livestock is very low, with Austria the only country where certified livestock has some importance. These figures for livestock confirm the important commitment of the Austrian agricultural sector to the development of organic farming. Figures on numbers of organic farms and area already showed the importance of organic farming in Austria, but its importance for livestock demonstrates that organic farming is now a very important part of Austrian agriculture, even without a Community framework.


The available information on land used for crops is much better than for livestock, largely because the sector is covered by a Community Regulation. Organic land is subdivided into three main categories: arable crops, horticulture and grassland. A fourth category, as reported by Lampkin and al., may cover other land or land in-conversion but is mainly an unallocated adjustment figure that might also show double counting when negative (Table 2).

The pattern of crops grown on organic farms does not reflect the general pattern seen in all the holdings covered by the Farm Structure Survey (1995) (Figure 7Figure 8). Grassland is by far the most important land use for organic and in-conversion land area in Europe, covering 55% of the total of such land, whereas it represents only 40% of the total land in the Farm Structure Survey (FSS) 1995 5. Further investigation into this is warranted, as it is not clear if this is temporary grassland in-conversion, as opposed to land actually managed for livestock grazing or for fodder production.

Arable crops are grown on only 19% of organic and in-conversion land area, as opposed to 46% of all agricultural land, according to the FSS 1995 6.

8% of organic and in-conversion land is used for horticulture, whereas in FSS 95 horticulture 7 covered only 1.2% of the total agriculture area in the EU. The importance of horticulture in organic or in-conversion farms clearly reflects consumer demand for organically produced agricultural products and foodstuffs.

After three years of discussions, on June 1999 the Agriculture Council reached a political agreement for the legislative harmonisation on the rules of production, labelling and inspection of the most relevant animal species: bovine, ovine, goats, horses and poultry. Among other aspects the agreement deals with feed, disease prevention and veterinary treatments, animal welfare, livestock housing, management of manure etc. GMOs are explicitly excluded from the food chain of animal organic production.

Likewise, the Commission, in a further attempt to foster organic production, has proposed an EU label to identify food produced according to the EU organic standards.

1 Lampkin, N., C. Foster, S. Padel and P. Midmore (1998). The policy and regulatory environment for organic farming in Europe. Technical Deliverable: Ri, FAIR3-CT96-1794. Welsh Institute of Rural Studies, Aberystwyth University, Wales.
2 Lampkin, N., C. Foster, S. Padel and P. Midmore (1998). The policy and regulatory environment for organic farming in Europe. Technical Deliverable: Ri, FAIR3-CT96-1794. Welsh Institute of Rural Studies, Aberystwyth University, Wales.
3 Eurostat, Farm Structure Survey 1995.
4 Lampkin, N., C. Foster, S. Padel and P. Midmore (1998), Ibiden
5 Grassland covers Permanent Pasture and meadow (F) and Temporary Grass (D/18/a)
6 Arable land covers Section D of the FSS characteristics, less Fresh vegetables, melons, strawberries (D/14+D/15), less Flowers and ornamental plants (D/16+D/17) and less Temporary grass (D/81/a)
7 Horticulture in the Farm Structure survey covers market gardening, vegetables under glass, flowers, ornamental plants, some permanent crops and ground covered by greenhouses.


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