With the organic vs local vs Fairtrade debate resembling some kind of ethical ’papers, scissors, stone’, organic has been somewhat usurped in the green stakes of late. The limelight has been cast instead on local sourcing. This presents a problem to organic bread bakers: the bullk of the UK’s organic wheat is imported from Canada, as well as countries such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, there is a chronic shortfall of organic UK growers.

Despite a growing organic bread market, demand for organic feed wheat is outstripping that from bakers - feed wheat is commanding similar premiums and, because it’s lower specification, it is easier to grow. Now that grain for 50% of organic livestock is coming from overseas, there is pressure to increase UK organic arable production, potentially squeezing bread wheat supply further.

Stark warning comes from David Younie, the organic specialist at The Scottish Agricultural College, who says that organic grain will remain in short supply next year. Feed wheat markets alone require an additional 247,000 acres of land to be switched from conventional farming systems to organic to meet demand. Meanwhile there is estimated to be a shortfall of 70,000-87,500 acres for wheat for human consumption.

"The needs of the dairy and poultry sector for organic grain have overshadowed our baking industry’s need. Feed wheat prices are close to bread wheat prices. It’s perhaps no surprise that growers go in for the lower specification option," says Bob Beard, purchasing director with Warburtons, which has a 7% market share in organic bakery. Warburtons claims to be the only baker contracting wheat on a five-year basis.

There is a need for bakers and millers to support growers with long-term, commercially attractive commitments. That was the message emerging from Beyond Organic, an event staged by miller FWP Matthews, which invited farmers, millers, bakers and retailers to forge closer relationships along the organic grain chain.

Beard suggests we could be on the brink of a step-change in organic wheat supply. The plant baker could be using as much as 50% UK organic wheat in the next few years, whereas before, it has been reliant on Canadian imports. This is based on long-term contracting with farmers.

Buoyant organic market

The draw for growers are premiums sustained by a buoyant organic bakery market, up by 19% in value and 15% in volume year-on-year. It is now worth £41m, which equates to around 15m loaves and 2.5m packs of rolls. The gains are partly due to a boom in the premium market, and reflects similar fortunes the previous year. Nonetheless, organic remains niche, which may explain why not enough farmers have signed up to the cause so far.

"Organic in bakery still hasn’t matched the growth in other categories such as confectionery, fresh produce and poultry," says Beard. Consumers tend to view bread as a naturally more wholesome product, so there are few reasons for switching to organic, he says.

So bakers and retailers could do better in communicating where the added value lies. Organic bakery in the supermarkets is an own-brand-dominated market, accounting for 60%, and a mixed approach from the retailers to managing and placing organic in their category has led to confusion. "Consumers are seeking a ’less artificial’ alternative, but they’re buying into wholemeal and seeded products. You’ve got to ask yourselves, where is the value to the consumer in trading to organics?"

Nevertheless he believes the outlook for organic bakery is strong. "We see continued growth in the organic sector. There is every indication, across the range of categories, that organic is becoming more mainstream, and certainly less faddish." But the market will require grain with consistent protein levels year after year if UK wheat is to be used in larger volumes. "Our problem is simple: bakers need a certain level of protein, quality and quantity," he says.

This is one objective of the Defra-funded LINK programme - the Better Organic Bread (BOB) project. During the first year, significant progress has been made in field trials of a number of spring wheat varieties and fertility methods at three sites used in the project, Richard Stanley from the agriculture department of CCFRA told delegates.

The BOB project enables organic farmers to select variety and fertility to optimise protein content and quality in the wheat crop and affect the breadmaking quality. It also provides information to enable the milling and baking sector to improve their processes to produce a better-quality loaf from UK-grown wheat.

"It was clear from the event, which was attended by all sectors of the industry, that there is a willingness to adopt such new techniques, which will result in improvements throughout the organic supply chain," says Stanley. "We anticipate being able to develop recommendations for fertility and variety inputs for organic wheat while also providing milling and baking guidance to enable better quality organic bread to be produced from UK crops."

growth opportunity

There is little holding back organic grain farmers and protein crops stand out as being a major opportunity for growth, says the Soil Association. A Defra meeting on organic feed earlier this year concluded that UK supplies for next winter and spring will be inadequate. While significant amounts of organic grain are imported from Kazakhstan and the Ukraine, security of supply, provenance and quality are increasing concerns in the marketplace, with consumers looking for more home-grown products.

"At present, initiatives to increase organic arable production in the UK to reduce our reliance on imports is one of the Soil Association food and farming department’s key priorities," says Phil Stocker, head of food and farming at the Association, which held two similar events this month. "Achieving greater self-sufficiency makes sense all round. It potentially offers new business opportunities for UK producers, provides significant environmental benefits in terms of conservation, wildlife, and transport energy, and generally leads to greater resilience of our farms and food businesses."

growth opportunity

There will always be plenty of incentives for farmers to go into organic farming, adds Paul Matthews of FWP Matthews, "But we need to convince the farming industry that there’s a commitment from the baking and milling industry that we require the wheat, otherwise it will go elsewhere. The buzz word of today is ’local’ and it makes a good fit for us all to work together. Events like this make a difference." n


=== Do the math ===

UK demand for organic wheat for human consumption is estimated at approximately 50,000 tonnes per annum. However, the UK only produces around 30% of this, leaving a shortfall of 35,000 tonnes, which has to be imported. If the UK wanted to grow this amount, the following rough calculation shows how much land we would need:

35,000 tonnes shortfall

÷2 tonnes per acre

= 17,500 acres needed to

grow this

However, milling wheat is grown on

average one year out of every four

to five years, due to the nature of

the organic rotation

17,500 acres × 4-5 years

= an additional 70,000-

87,500 acres needed to meet the

35,000-tonne shortfall


=== Stronger organic LINK ===

The UK organic wheat crop, of about 15,000 hectares, does not consistently provide flour of suitable quality and protein levels to meet the needs of the organic baking industry. So more than 50% of the wheat required for the organic bread market is imported.

This LINK project is investigating the constraints on the expansion of the market for organic bread produced from wheat grown in the UK. By identifying how farming practices affect the protein content and quality of organic spring wheat, the project aims to improve bread quality. The year-one field trials were completed successfully in 2006 and the project is in year two, with the field trials about to be harvested in the next few weeks.

Trials are in progress at three sites over four seasons, with opportunities for improvement in grain quality by evaluating different varieties of spring wheat under investigation.

The wheat varieties evaluated in the trials are Amaretto, Fasan, Monsun, Paragon, Tybalt and Zebra. Production methods are focused on creating stronger and higher-quality protein in organic wheat, based on the hypothesis that high protein strength can be used to compensate for lower protein content. Ultimately, this strategy will lead to increased utilisation of UK organic wheat, which has a higher market value in the bread sector.

The project will also provide guidelines for making doughs with appropriate rheological properties for organic bread. Ultimately, the studies hope to optimise bread recipes and mixing conditions for organic flour - modifying milling extraction rates and changes to the formulation of dough mixes and dough preparation procedures - and improve the quality of organic bread.