Agriculture — organic farming

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
8 min read
Photo: © Virgolici Raluca/EEA

Reducing agriculture's environmental impacts requires a transition towards innovative, low-input systems. Organic production plays a role in increasing the efficiency of nutrient management and reducing pesticide use.

While there has been rapid development in recent years, in 2012 the total area under organic farming was still only 5.7% of total utilised agricultural area, with more than a 60-fold difference in the share of organic farming amongst countries.

Setting the scene

Agricultural production covers roughly half of Europe's land territory and is fundamental to food security. It is multifunctional, providing food, fibre and feed and playing a very important socio-economic role, particularly in rural communities. Europe has a high diversity of farming practices, growing conditions and agricultural ecosystems. Agriculture has substantial positive and negative impacts on soils, air and water quality, ecosystems and biodiversity, and landscape amenity value.

The SOER 2015 briefing on agriculture provides an overview of the status, trends and prospects of agriculture in Europe and its effect on the environment. This SOER 2015 cross-country comparison focuses on organic farming.

Organic farming aims to be a more environmentally sustainable form of agricultural production, combining best environmental practices, and emphasising biodiversity protection and the preservation of natural resources. It also emphasises high animal welfare standards and the avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

About the indicator

The indicator is defined as the share of total utilised agricultural area (UAA) occupied by organic farming (existing organically-farmed areas and areas in the process of conversion). Farming is only considered to be organic at the European Union (EU) level if it complies with Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007, which provides a comprehensive framework for production of crops and livestock; labelling, processing and marketing of organic products; and the import of organic products into the EU.

This indicator is regularly published by Eurostat and provides information on the degree to which adoption of organic farming practices has been occurring in European countries. This indicator is also included in the Resource Efficiency Scoreboard for the assessment of progress towards the objectives and targets of the Europe 2020 flagship initiative on resource efficiency.

Policies, targets and progress

European agriculture has been supported for over 50 years under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and while there are no policy targets for organic farming at European level, the recently adopted Action Plan[1] and legislative proposal[2] set out objectives for the development of organic production to 2020. The positive effects of organic farming on the environment will contribute to achieving a range of European[3] and national policy objectives.

Many countries have adopted national policies for organic farming, with some containing quantitative targets such as increasing the percentage of land area under organic production, the number of organic producers, and the range of organic food products in public canteens.

While there has been rapid development of the organic sector in Europe in recent years, with an increase of around 500 000 hectares per year during the last decade,[4] in 2012 the total area under organic agriculture in the EU-28 was only 5.7% of the total UAA in Europe.[5] Most organic farmland is in countries that joined the EU before 2004 in which national and EU legislation have contributed to the development of the sector.

In absolute terms, the countries with the largest areas under organic production are Spain, Italy and France. However, the organic sector is quickly expanding in those countries that have joined the EU since 2004. These countries registered a 13% yearly growth rate in their organically farmed area from 2002 to 2011 and saw their number of holdings increase almost tenfold between 2003 and 2010.[4]

The relative share of organic farming within the total UAA gives an indication of the relative importance of the sector at national level. In 2012, the countries with the highest share of organic agriculture were Austria (18.6%), Sweden (15.8%) and Estonia (14.9%), and those with the lowest share were Malta (0.3%), Bulgaria (0.8%) and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (0.9%) (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Total organic crop area as a share of total utilised agricultural area in 31 European countries (2000, 2006 and 2012)

There is more than a 60-fold difference in the share of organic agriculture amongst countries, arising from a range of natural as well as historical, political, social, economic and environmental factors. Environmental factors include climate, which influences the incidence of pests and therefore the need for pesticides, along with the annual growing conditions and type of crops cultivated and livestock reared.

Historical developments explain part of the variation. For example, in Austria, the country with the highest share of organic agriculture, organic farming has a long history, with the first farms being established in the 1920s. Austria was one of the first countries worldwide to set official guidelines and it has a national policy framework and action plan for organic food and farming. In Bulgaria, a country with one of the lowest shares of organic agriculture, the first intensive activities to develop organic farming began in the 1990s with development of the local market for organic produce and adoption of a national action plan in the mid-2000s.

Organic agriculture in the West Balkans

Comparable time series data were not available for West Balkan countries, with the exception of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The share of organic farming in the West Balkan countries is very low, but increasing. Between 2006 and 2009 the share of total agricultural land utilised for this purpose in the region as a whole increased from 0.09% to 0.32%. Albania experienced the most rapid increase in the same period, reaching almost 2% in 2009.

The organic farming sector is currently under development in all countries, and new strategies and policies are being prepared or are under preparation. The 2009 figure could be compared with the approximately 0.5% share of organic farming in the EU-10 Member States at the end of the 1990s.[6]

There is large variation amongst countries in the growth of organic production. It has grown in the majority of countries, with Sweden, Czech Republic and Estonia showing the largest growth between 2006 and 2012. Only Portugal and Greece showed a reduction in share in the same period, with the United Kingdom showing no change (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Percentage change in the share of organic agriculture from 20062012 in 30 European countries


Organic farming has been identified as a key element in sustainable management of Europe's natural land-based resources.[2] A transition towards innovative low-input systems, such as organic farming, integrated farming, precision farming, conservation agriculture and silvopastoralism (a combination of forestry and livestock grazing) can contribute to meeting the challenge of having a more sustainable food system.[7]

As well as a growth in the share of organic farming in most countries, there has also been a growth in the number of low-input farms in Europe, with such farms making up a higher percentage of area than high-input farms, although the latest available data are from 2007.[8][9]

The diversity of European agriculture and high number of countries that have adopted national action plans illustrate the potential for further growth in organic farming. This would contribute to increased efficiency in terms of nutrient management, reduce pesticide use, and reduce agriculture's impact on the environment and on biodiversity. The growing global demand for food, animal feed, fibre and bioenergy has implications for agriculture in European countries. A major challenge for organic farming is to expand and respond to demand without putting at risk consumers' confidence in the principles of organic farming and in the quality of organic products.[1]

At a European level, the Action Plan aims to respond to these challenges and focuses on the priority areas of increasing the competitiveness of organic producers; consolidating and increasing consumer confidence; and reinforcing the external dimension of the EU organic production scheme. Particular attention should be paid to the synergies between policies and instruments, in particular the reformed CAP. It recommends that countries use opportunities and tools available in the new legal framework for rural development[10] and the Common Fisheries Policy to support organic farming along with further use of public procurement requirements.

The CAP concerning the period 20142020, recognises organic farmers as 'green by definition' as they are automatically entitled to the green payment.[1] It enables specific agri-environment measures aimed at climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation as well as organic farming practices to qualify for financial support from the rural development pillar (Pillar 2).

While these CAP greening measures are a step in the right direction, they do not seem to sufficiently address the resource efficiency of agriculture in terms of productivity, water use, carbon capture, and external inputs such as nutrients and pesticides. Nor do they sufficiently address the issue of ecosystem resilience.[7]

Countries' perspectives

References and footnotes

[1] EC (2014), Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committe of the Regions, Action Plan for the future of Organic Production in the European Union, COM(2014)179 final, Brussels, 24.03.2014.

[2] EC (2014), Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on organic production and labelling of organic products, amending Regulation (EU) No XXX/XX of the European Parliament and of the Council [Official controls Regulation] and repealing Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007, COM(2014) 180 final, Brussels, 24.3.14.

[3] The Action Plan states that the positive effects of organic farming on the environment contribute to the achievements of the objectives of the 2020 Biodiversity Strategy, the Green Infrastructure Communication, the Soil Thematic Strategy and environmental legislation such as the Birds and Habitats Directives, the Nitrates Directive, the Water Framework Directive, the National Emission Ceiling Directive.

[4] EC (2013), Facts and figures on organic agriculture in the European Union.

[5] Eurostat (2014), Certified organic crop area by crops products, accessed 4 March 2014.

[6] Zoi Environment Network and EEA (2012), West Balkan Environmental Core Set of Indicators 2012.

[7] EEA (2012), A Green CAP? Reform options from an environmental angle, accessed 23 June 2013.

[8] Eurostat (2014), Farm input consumption (source: FADN), accessed 4 March 2014.

[9] Each farm is classified according to the level of input use per hectare, which is calculated on the basis of the spending (in constant euros) on purchased inputs per hectare of Utilised Agricultural Area (UAA). If it is higher than constant EUR 295 per hectare, the farm is qualified as high. When it is below constant EUR 125 per hectare, it is classified as low. Otherwise, it is medium. The inputs considered here are purchased fertilisers and soil improvers, pesticides (i.e. plant protection products, traps and baits, bird scarers, anti-hail shells, frost protection) and purchased feed.

[10] Regulation (EU) No 1305/2013.


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