European organic agricultural land increased by 8.2 percent in 2015, but this still lags behind the boom in market demand, which grew by 13 percent between 2008-2015.
While globally sourced ingredients are helping to make up the shortfall, the sector is a clear target for fraudulent ingredients. The European Commission has aimed to tackle the problem with recently introduced rules on production and imports, but so far the gap between supply and demand has continued to widen.
“We have got to meet the challenge of supply,” said Lee Holdstock, Trade Relations Manager at The Soil Association. “…The concern is that the gap will continue to grow as demand grows more steeply.”
However, European suppliers still have the edge over many third countries, Holdstock insists.
“Provenance is incredibly important…The fact that animal welfare is embedded is also very attractive to export markets, as well as heritage,” he said, adding that some certified organic brands in Europe date back hundreds of years.
As for how to close the supply-demand gap in Europe, he says that supporting farmers with agro-economic innovation is crucial – as is ensuring it is shared with both organic and non-organic farmers. That way, organic practices for nitrogen-fixing, for example, become part of the conventional farming landscape, making it easier for farmers to make the switch.
Detecting ingredient fraud
In the meantime, systems and technologies to detect fraudulent ingredients have become increasingly important to organic food and drink manufacturers. Better analytical tools and forensic techniques, such as DNA fingerprinting, are being used to authenticate premium products. The European organic sector has also introduced blockchain technology – used to protect digital currency Bitcoin – meaning that no part of the chain can be tampered with without it showing in the other parts of the chain.
“Integrity is something we pride ourselves on,” Holdstock said. “We are generally concerned that there will be more and more pressure for people to source products from overseas, but also that with the cost pressures there will be more temptation to defraud.”
The industry is an attractive target for food fraud because certified organic products command an average premium of about 15-30%. However, because of their built-in standards for farm management, animal welfare and provenance, they are also subject to extensive checks, which help make fraudulent organic claims less likely to succeed.
“We don’t want to be complacent merely because we have those checks in place, but we are particularly vulnerable to any small failures that could creep into the system,” he said.