Organic dairy, for so long the sector’s success story, is facing a crisis of confidence, with fears over whether people will continue to buy organic milk, butter and cheese as food prices rise. soar.
Some UK organic farmers are getting a lower milk price than some of their non-organic competitors are getting.
On-farm costs have skyrocketed. Organic food prices have tripled year on year thanks to high shipping costs dating back to pandemic disruptions that have driven up the price of staples such as organic soybeans from Asia.
The sector has seen weak sales growth in the UK over the past five years. Overall, sales of organic dairy products are lower (1% cheese and 5% milk) compared to European countries such as France or Germany. In Denmark, more than a third of milk sales are organic.
Retailers say organic milk and dairy products are struggling to stand out to consumers, on shelves filled with a host of new standards and commitments put in place by brands and conventional milk producers, such as than “free-range” cow claims. Competition from alternative milks is also fierce, with sales of oat, almond and soy milk increasing rapidly.
Unsurprisingly, there have been reports of producers dropping their organic status and moving to claim a higher milk price as a conventional farmer. “Others will be looking too,” said a dairy farmer at a recent industry event.
Tim Downes, an organic dairy farmer from Shropshire, said the difference between milk prices and feed costs was ‘unsustainable’ at the moment and predicted organic milk buyers would soon run out of milk, farmers switching to conventional or producing less.
“We need to be positive in our messaging as organic farmers and let consumers know how much effort goes into making organic food,” he said.
David Williams, managing director of the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative, said: ‘Organic needs to be 10p per liter more [than milk produced by cows in conventional farming systems]but the challenge is to convince our customers’ customers to choose it commercially. »
The point of difference for organic appears to have eroded as the dairy sector as a whole engages in many initiatives that previously seemed unique to organic, such as eliminating the use of antibiotics, access cows grazing in the open air and experimenting with carbon audits.
There is also likely to be a decline in the use of artificial fertilizers by all dairy farmers this year – another key part of organic farming standards – as the cost rises.
“You might wonder what the biggest selling point of organic is,” an industry insider said this week. “As food prices rise, consumers are pressured to limit the cost of their food basket to what they want to pay. Why should they pay extra for it?
Williams, whose co-op accounts for nearly two-thirds of the milk produced by organic farmers in the UK, said the organic selling point was her farmers’ work to protect wildlife and the environment. He said standards, including no artificial fertilizers or antibiotics, were certified, with farms audited annually to ensure they complied.
However, Williams said organic products and brands need to do better to sell their credentials. “Organic is too similar to conventional [on the shelf in its current packaging]. We shouldn’t be surprised that consumers aren’t so interested in paying more for it. »
In the long term, organic farmers need to be able to reduce their reliance on imported food, said Liz Bowles, agricultural director of the Soil Association, an organic farming charity.
“We need to get more of the feed used by farmers in the UK, through greater use of local proteins such as peas and beans and ensuring that cows eat mainly cows. ‘grass and fodder,’ she said.
Dan Burdett, a Sussex-based organic dairy farmer, said the critical time for many organic farmers would be this fall and winter when feed usage was higher with less grass growth.
“We have been organic here on the farm for 22 years [when his father converted from conventional] and I’ve never known anything else myself, so it would be hard for us to change now.