Interview on EFEAGRO: How is Spain performing in the organic sector?

Nathalie Parès, EFEAGRO

Anabel Pascual, a journalist with EFE, the Spanish news agency, interviewed me this week about how Spain is performing  in the organic sector. Here’s my analysis on what is behind the latest Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) figures and my suggestions for consolidating the sector:

Spain has more land area dedicated to organic farming than any EU country. With two digit growth figures, its organic market is performing well (+25% in 2015 and +13% in 2016 – latest figures available). All this is encouraging for the future of the sector and it is rightly something the Mapama (Ministerio de Agricultura y Pesca, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente) should be proud about. On the cover of Mapama’s organic strategy document for 2018-2020, we can read “España, primer país de la UE y cuarto en el mundo en Superficie Bio” (Spain, first EU country and 4th in the world in terms of organic surface [area dedicated to organic production]). Also, “Bio, Eco, Orgánico, Más que Verde (more than green)” and they are damn right! However, organic means a bit more than a green grazing field. Organic farming  can greatly contribute in achieving: zero hunger, good health and well-being, clean water, decent work and economic growth, climate action and few more objectives of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) defined by the UN.

Bio, Eco, Orgánico, Más que Verde

So here are few facts from FiBl’s latest yearly statistics book  that should be taken into account when weighing up the Spanish organic sector.

  • The share of organic land in Spain is 8.7% of the total arable land, – the rest is occupied by so-called “conventional farming”. This  leaves Spain in 12th position of the EU ranking  (as an indication Sweden has a 18% organic land share and Italy 14.5%). Despite their best efforts, Spanish organic farmers can’t offset the scandal of El Ejido near Almeria with its “Moroccan slaves and 50km sea of plastic”.

Organic in Europe

  • More than half of Spain’s organically farmed land is grazing land, which might be good news for livestock but not for the climate. If we consider organic agriculture as a tool for answering sustainability challenges, overall the level of organic farming in Spain, while good, is not sufficient to answer the challenges of climate change, soil erosion, or rural exodus. More efforts should be done towards to develop organic arable land. In this regard, the high level of conversion to organic is a great news.

Then we come to the organic market. The double digit growth (+25% in 2015 and +13% in 2016) makes the +2% growth of conventional food sales look pale. Nevertheless we must mention the low starting point, and the fact that Spanish consumers only spend €36 per person on organic food per year, half of what the EU consumers spend on average. This figure relegates Spain to 15th position of the EU rankings (photo). There is room for improvement.

A first step might consist of developing and promoting domestic consumption. As it stands, Spain remains an exporting country and too little is done to promote organic consumption internally. Parallel to this effort in raising awareness, there is an urgent need  to diversify the products on offer, and to challenge the sale channels. Too often, shopping organic in Spain is a mission, that is often expensive and sometimes does not deliver in terms of quality. Spanish organic consumers deserve an enjoyable, affordable, and social shopping experience while buying organic. This is necessary in order to reach new consumers and maintain their interest in organic food.

Finally, the sector needs representation. Spanish organic farmers, producers and processors do not have a structure that allows them to speak with one voice, as it the case in most EU countries. Often, they belong to traditional farming associations that can defend organic production only to a point, considering the sometimes clashing interests with conventional producers (this problem is exacerbated in Catalonia where there is a powerful porcine industry and also a high concentration of GMO cultivation. The Mapama itself tried to address this issue, with inconclusive results.

This point is particularly important, as the sector is facing important policy reforms in the coming months, with the finalisation of the new EU organic regulation, and the new version of the PAC currently being discussed. Spain is now at a crossroads, and can either create a strong organic sector capable of feeding its population, while correcting the current plagues of the traditional food system (pollution, obesity, desertification, rural exodus) or it can continue focusing in supplying other EU countries.