UK farmers face a ban on exporting their products to the EU under the “organic” label from January 1 if the bloc does not opt to recognise their certification after the end of the Brexit transition.
Farmers say time is running out to secure recognition and enable the continued flow of an estimated £225m a year of organic exports on which the UK sector depends.
Uncertainty around exports from next year means that continental European customers have already begun to end longstanding deals with UK suppliers over concerns about recognition of regulations that determine products that can be called “organic”.
“We are uniquely affected in terms of Brexit because we are one of fairly few industries that could face an outright ban on trading, because we have a regulation that protects us,” said Lee Holdstock, trade relations manager at the Soil Association, the UK’s leading organic certification body.
“It’s great to have that regulation to protect consumers . . . but to have that protection in times like this makes you uniquely vulnerable.”
The UK’s organic sector, with £2.5bn of sales last year, accounts for a small proportion of the overall food and farming industry but its growth has exceeded the broader food market, and it should benefit from a new subsidy regime promoting environmental goals.
It is also benefiting from a trend among consumers to embrace environmentally friendly and local food production. UK organic sales are set to hit £2.6bn this year, the highest figure since certification began in 1973.
However, once the UK’s current trading arrangements with the EU conclude at the end of this year, the UK and EU will need to recognise one another’s organic standards as equivalent — a process farmers believe ought to be simple, given they have operated under identical regimes for decades.
The UK has said that, to ease the transition and enable imports, it will recognise EU organic standards as equivalent to its own until the end of 2021, pending a long-term agreement. But Brussels has made no such offer in return.
UK negotiators are seeking organic equivalence as part of any trade deal, but there is no certainty that such a deal will be agreed or that, in its initial form, it will cover issues such as organic produce.
As a fallback, the UK’s bodies with the authority to certify organic food, including the Soil Association, in February all applied to the European Commission using a separate process that would enable them to certify products sent into the EU. But they have received no official response so far.
Roger Kerr, chairman of the UK Organic Certifiers Group, said the group had been “led to believe” the recognition would be granted by the end of this year. The commission did not respond to a request for comment.
Richard Hampton, managing director of the UK’s largest organic dairy co-operative Omsco, said he had lost a longstanding German customer last week.
The buyer said they would source their milk products elsewhere from the end of November: “I’m sorry to say that politics do not allow us to continue our wonderful working relationship,” they added.
Mr Hampton said: “The irony is that if we agree to a deal that includes equivalence on December 20, we could find all the customers gone . . . This is now about how much money I’m going to lose.”
Andrew Burgess, a Norfolk vegetable farmer who chairs the organic forum at the National Farmers’ Union, said: “It’s a reciprocal business with a high degree of trust. There is a lot of goodwill and everyone tries to make it work but we are getting to the 11th hour,” he said.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that “to ensure a smooth transition process, we will recognise the EU as equivalent for the purpose of trade in organic produce until 31 December 2021”.
“This temporary measure will give certainty to the organic sector and it remains our objective to negotiate a durable, long-term organic produce equivalence agreement with the EU,” it added.
Farmers seeking to export goods into Europe could still do so without the organic label, but this would prevent them selling to buyers who process and retail the products as organic; it would also remove the price premium of about 30 per cent that is typically attached to organic food, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.
John Pawsey, an arable farmer in Suffolk, said: “The problem is that once we put the crops in the ground and treat them as organic crops they are going to yield less than the alternative farming system, and so without that price premium it doesn’t make a credible business proposition.”
Arable farmers are vulnerable to market disruptions because of the long-term crop rotations they undertake to keep soil healthy, he said.
“When you have suppliers to pay it’s going to be difficult without having [additional] credible buyers in the UK . . . it would be sad to see farmers converting out of organic production because they are not able to find buyers for their products.”
There are also concerns around labelling: requirements will differ depending which process is used to achieve equivalence, and food producers normally need a lead time of several months for labelling changes.
The broader farming sector has a host of additional worries, from a shortage of vets to certify goods for export to the possibility of being undercut by imports cultivated to lower standards overseas.
Mr Holdstock said: “It’s a worry that our UK [organic] industry is facing these challenges at a time that feels like we are coming of age.”