How Organic Policy & NGO Action drive organic breakthroughs in Denmark

Organic farming and food are firmly mainstream in Denmark today. Strong organic policy and NGO mobilization and partnerships have been key drivers.

Denmark has the highest market shares for organic food in the world (13%). And for many basic daily foods like eggs, milk, flour and many vegetables and fruits the organic market share is 30-50 %. Prepared baby food is at 95%, and some conventional foods like bananas are being phased out of all supermarkets.

Meals in schools, hospitals, government canteens and even military barracks are going organic, with many at 60 percent, and the largest city of Copenhagen is at 90 percent organic.

The organic farm area doubled between 2007 and 2020 and the new national goal is to double again, reaching the European Unions goal of 25% organic in 2030. Farmers are more and more positive, as organic farmers are earning more and increasingly seen as really good farmers, because organic farming requires good management.

Political support for organics has grown steadily. Today 10 of 11 political parties in the Danish Parliament support organic farming. We convinced politicians one-party-at-a-time use organic farming to solve problems and seize opportunities: rural job creation and incomes, greater biodiversity, climate benefits, protection of drinking water and food from pesticides, increased exports. Organics delivers!

Politicians are also opinion drivers—people listen to them. I have experienced again and again that a good dialogue that dispels myths and shares facts, changes the way these opinion makers communicate. We hear less about organics as part of the problem for climate or world hunger, and more about organic farming as part of the solution. Something researchers agree on.

None of these breakthroughs happened on their own.

In the early 90s, organic enthusiasm in the market, in farming, in research and in politics was very limited. So what happened?

Unite! Organic NGOs as change agents

One thing is that the organic sector got organized. First starting 8 different organisations of organic milk producers, vegetable producers, processors etc, but than merging all organisations into one: Organic Denmark, now representing organic farmers, processors, traders, consumers and food professionals. One voice in politics, media and the market.

We then built competencies and capacity in the critical areas of farm advising, innovation, market development, advocacy, public procurement and communications. Step-by-step. Year after year. I was employee number 7 in 1995. We grew to 70, with strong support from producers and government.

Organic Denmark became a change agent in the market, in the fields and in politics.

Collaboration and solidarity are key

But we can’t make change on our own. We built partnerships with retail actors and government agencies. And we created alliances with NGOs working for environment, consumers, climate, healthier food, animal welfare and better working conditions for workers in farming and the food industry.

Together we are a transformative infrastructure more and more positive towards organics –because we help with their agendas—and working together to develop organic farming, organic markets and organic policy. A market and policy ecosystem supportive of organics.

We also collaborate intensively with conventional farm organizations on policy and innovation and avoid direct criticism of conventional farming or farmers as much as possible. Researchers call it “constructive conflict” because we do battle each other on GMOs and compete for policy and resources, but we also collaborate and try to be good colleagues. Because every farmer is a potential organic farmer (and one day they all will be!).

Organic policy builds capacity and drives growth: both push and pull

Denmark has had a lot of firsts. First organic law in the world. First organic standards. First national organic logo. First national Organic Action Plan and first GMO law that protected organic farmers.

There is still a lot of work to do!

But one lesson is that organic policy works! It can train farmers, drive market development and accelerate innovation in organic farming.

Another lesson is that the best policies come from policy makers close dialogue and collaboration with the organic sector itself, about their needs and challenges.

A third lesson is that organics gets a boost when it is used as a policy measure in broader national strategies for rural development, water and nature protection, export promotion and climate. Organic farming has long been a part of Danish Rural Development Programmes and most recently the Danish goal of doubling the organic area is a pillar of Denmark’s Climate Strategy.

A fourth lesson is that a balance of push policies (upscaling organics in farming) and pull policies (market and supply chain development) makes a powerful combination. And creates a balanced development avoiding the worst of over production or under production of organics.

Upscaling organic farming (PUSH)

Among the push policies driving organic transition in farming are:

  • Organic education in agricultural schools
  • Free conversion “checks” (advice to farmers about organic conversion)
  • Demonstration of best practices
  • Research Centre and Innovation Centre for Organic Farming
  • Conversion payments assisting in the 2 year conversion period
  • Ecosystem payments for organic farming
  • Support for advisory services in the early years.

Among the pull policies driving market and supply chain development are support for:

  • Collaboration with supermarkets
  • Export promotion
  • Stronger skills among organic entrepreneurs
  • Product development team
  • Public procurement agreements
  • Consumer awareness campaigns

Denmarks work with organic public procurement really highlights the power in working with both policy and organic sector mobilization at the same time. After years of demonstrating organic conversion in public kitchens at institution and city level, the Danish government set a goal of 60% organic in all public kitchens, established an “organic cuisine label” for 30, 60 and 90 percent organic and invested in organic conversion in public kitchens. At the same time the organic sector brought farmers, processors and wholesalers together to collaborate on ensuring supply (motivated by the new political goals) and established an organic school to motivate staff in wholesale companies and capacity to train kitchen workers in the “new meals” that were not only organic, but also healthier and more climate friendly with less meat, less waste and purchasing in season.

Together, policy and action from the organic sector and allies has created a strong momentum.

Lessons from the Danish public procurement are found in a case study here.

Organic NGO as an implementer of policy

Worth noting is that, with the exception of farm subsidies and free inspection/certification (both coordinated by government directly), almost all of the above policies are implemented by organic NGOs and allies, not by government. This is an important difference in Denmark. And it works. Organic policy makers have actively used the organic NGO, Organic Denmark as a tool to drive organic transition in farming and the market. This change agent is missing in most nations because government has not invested in their organic sector.

Partnerships and consumer motivation drive market growth

 Another almost unique feature in the organic development in Denmark is the close partnerships that Organic Denmark has build with supermarket chains. Working with retail leadership to motivate them to go all-in on organics, because these are the most interesting consumers to get into their stores. Then helping supermarkets to expand organic product assortments, position organics better in stores and communicate much more actively “the why” of organics, both what organics “can do for you” but also what organic farming does for the planet.

And this is perhaps the most important lesson from Denmark. Making organics for all means communicating how organics protects our nature, climate, and creates new climate resilient opportunities for farmers, while keeping pesticide residues out of our food, nature and drinking water. And information is not enough. We invite consumers out on organic farms to see for themselves. Every year 5% of the entire population of Denmark is out on an organic farm at one of our events. This memory, and meeting dedicated organic farmers, stays with them. In their hearts and minds. Winning their loyalty to organic food and farmers!

This article first appeared in ISAN, magazine of the IFOAM Southern Africa Network in the february 2023 issue. You can see the full magazine here 

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