Well who’d have thought it? Only 60 years since the organic movement was a glint in the farmer’s eye and people suddenly can’t get enough of organic - quite literally.

Demand for organic wheat has never been higher amid the consumer and corporate scramble to paint the world green. All of which may be music to environmentalists’ ears, but less melodious to organic bakers, who have had to swallow a 50% hike in organic flour prices.

Although organic represents only a small part - around 2.5% - of Fine Lady Bakeries’ business the plant baker, which counts Tesco and Greencore among its customers, has had to take steps to safeguard supply as availability becomes squeezed. "We have endeavoured to secure organic supply because we believe there will be a shortage of organic wheat in the course of this coming year, and we’ve done that with the confidence of our customers," says MD Joe Street.

At the other end of the scale, specialist craft bakers have added between 5-10p per loaf in recent weeks. Although many bakers have absorbed previous flour price rises, the latest round risks upsetting customers, says Jamie Campbell of Dorset’s Long Crichel Bakery, which uses solely organic ingredients. "Our major cost is not ingredients, it’s labour. But flour prices have gone up quite a bit. As a small bakery dealing with a lot of customers buying small volumes, you have to be careful about putting up prices," he says.

Clive Wells of Bristol-based Hobbs House Bakery, a three-shop-plus-wholesale bakery that has won gold in the Organic Food Awards, is hoping the buoyant organic market will support price hikes. "Our flour prices went up last week and we’re having to pass that on to our customers," says Wells. "There has been a lot in the press about conventional wheat prices rising, so I think consumers are prepared for further bread price increases."

So what’s behind the increases? An insufficient number of farmers growing organic wheat domesti-cally have coincided with an export ban in major European supplier the Ukraine, a surge in the market for domestic organic feed wheat to meet high consumer demand for organic poultry, eggs and milk, and global wheat shortages.

Meanwhile, the UK organic bakery and cereals market doubled between 2000 and 2005 and is set to grow again by 47% between 2005 and 2010, mirroring a trend right across Europe, according to Datamonitor. Do the maths and it’s no surprise that bakers are feeling the pinch, both on availability and pricing of organic flour.

The shortfall in organic wheat is a "mirror-image of the world wheat situation for non-organic," says Tim Cook, sales and marketing director of ADM Milling. The drought last summer affecting UK supply, Europe and Australia, has contributed to a 20-year high in wheat prices. "A lowering of global production has brought an increase in price," he says. "Non-organic has seen a year-on-year price increase of 45%, which is not far apart from the organic wheat price increase."

In the past, premiums for orga-nic wheat have not been tempting enough to lure farmers into conversion. Instead, they have grown conventional crops for higher yields. While a conventional farmer would grow between eight and 11 tonnes of wheat per hectare, an organic farmer’s yield would be closer to six tonnes per hectare. With conventional wheat prices on a high, organic grains need to be over £200/t delivered to sustain the organic market, says Nigel Gossett, a grain trader with Norton Organic Grain.

"Organic wheat has gone up £100/t, but from low levels," he explains. "One of the reasons that people dropped out of producing organic arable crops was because price levels weren’t good enough. Hopefully, the farms that are already converted to organic, which have stopped cropping, will come back, encouraged by the prices. It’s the organic feed wheat market that has really driven things on."

The market for organic feed wheat, around the same size as the market for milling wheat three years ago, has since doubled, he states.

Under European rules, organic cattle and sheep must be fed no more than 5% non-organic grain and pigs and poultry 15%, but by 2012 all organically reared animals must be fed 100% organic feed, according to Defra.

It is this demand for organic feed wheat that is eating into millers’ wheat availability; livestock farmers are competing for whatever wheat is available and, in some cases, are prepared to pay milling wheat prices for feed wheat. "It’s galling for us to be outbid for wheat by chicken farmers - it’s quite extraordinary," says Michael Marriage, of miller Doves Farm Foods.

Just a small percentage of consumers switching from conventional milk to organic could potentially double the market at a swoop, "and you can’t just turn on supply in the organic system when there is a minimum of three years to convert farms," says Gossett.

While the majority of UK organic wheat is farmed in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, Northumberland is seeing a large number of cereal farmers converting, but it has been difficult to wean farmers off agrochemicals in the traditional eastern cereal growing counties of the UK, says the Soil Association’s processor certification manager, Rachel Harrison.

"The dip in yields in the early years of conversion, compared to chasing the current conventional market price, is going to be a huge disincentive," she says. "Organic yields fall in the first few years of certification as you remove chemical fixes and start to build soil fertility. Yields do increase as fertility is returned to the soil, but farmers face a drop in profits during the conversion period."

Mixed farms - with a mixture of arable, livestock and perhaps vegetable production - are able to cope better with conversion; it’s much more difficult to build fertility and introduce rotations to control weeds and disease problems in cropping systems that have no livestock, and that is why traditional cereal growers are less inclined to convert, she says.

Changes in the way that farmers are paid their subsidies - payments decoupled from production means farmers are no longer tied to producing grain - have seen many marginal European produ-cers drop out of production, fuelling the problem.

So what does the future hold? The market "will work itself out", believes ADM’s Tim Cook, with the high premium for organic wheat encouraging farmers to turn over more land to organic production. "That will be sustained by consumer interest. If it remains high and continues to grow, it will be reflected in the price of all parts of the supply chain right back to the farmer."

With conventional cereal prices having risen sharply, there is little reason for farmers to plunge into organics without longer-term incentives. "Farmers will convert to organic providing they see both reasonable prices and consistent demand," says Lord Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association and an organic wheat grower. Suppliers say the onus should be on the multiples to push things along with longer-term deals, much as Sainsbury’s has done with organic milk.

For farmers willing to grasp the nettle, premiums are likely to remain attractive, as suppliers will struggle to satisfy predicted increases in consumer demand for organic products over the next three years, says John Norton of Norton Organics. And if farmers started converting now, it would be possible to create a new organic supply of wheat by 2010. If not, supply would be reliant on imported material, says Alex Waugh, director general of NABIM. "The retailers have got to decide whether they want to be in the market long-term and, if so, consider longer contracts to encourage people to the market," he says.

Meanwhile, government policy is increasingly favouring organic farming methods over conventio-nal methods through the Organic Entry-level Stewardship Scheme, which is "making farmers sit up and see that there is a future for organic", says Andrew Wilkinson of farmer and miller, Gilchesters.

In the meantime, one unnamed bakery supplier says that pas-sing on price increases has been tough, as bakery buyers hold on to a ’mythical figure’ that organic products should be only 10-15% higher than conventional products. This, he says, pays scant regard to the real costs of organic ingredients, production, development and smaller packaging runs.

But bakery suppliers who find it difficult to pass on price rises to retailers must resist the temptation to cut corners with their products. "It is very difficult to pass on the cost to retailers but many are lending a sympathetic ear," says Michael Bell, MD of The Village Bakery. "The organic consumer is not purely driven by price and the market is not going to improve by driving out cost through making compromises with the ingredients, but by maintaining the integrity of the product and giving consumers something they can trust." n


=== Debate: Do we really need to import organic wheat? ===

The UK imports the majority of its organic wheat for baking. Organic wheat is not fertilised with nitrogen, which is applied to non- organic wheat to increase protein levels. Higher protein wheats, grown in better climatic conditions overseas, are therefore blended with homegrown varieties to meet bakers’ performance needs.

Though shipped-in wheat is unlikely to fall foul of the Soil Association’s talked-about future clampdown on certification for air-freighted goods, ethically-minded consumers are calling for more homegrown products to reduce food miles. "There’s a great movement to get people to buy locally. Some will even say that local is better than organic," says Julian Wade of the Organic Food Federation, "but there aren’t enough arable producers switching to organic and we’re heavily reliant on imports."

"Demand is outstripping supply," concurs Bob Beard, purchasing director for Warburtons, which buys its organic flour through FWP Matthews. "The UK doesn’t grow the higher-protein organic wheat that some of our bakery processes require, so we’re forced to look abroad to supplement the wheats that we use from the UK. But organics is an area that’s showing some growth and it’s one that we want to play a part in."

Warburtons is involved with Newcastle University and CCFRA on a government- and industry-funded Link project, ’Better Organic Bread from Organic Wheat’, which is challenging the supply chain to identify UK breadmaking wheats. One of its findings could force a fundamental rethink on industry assumptions about protein levels, that has been overlooked by the standard baking quality grain tests, says Andrew Wilkinson of farmer and miller, Gilchesters.

The same variety of wheat, grown under chemical and organic conditions, will have inherently different protein structures, but the organic wheat performs as well in baking, he explains: "The protein percentage isn’t as high in organic wheat because you’re not using chemical fertilisers to pump the protein levels up to soft Canadian wheat levels. But we have observed an incredible and significant scientific difference in the quality of the proteins.

"Even with only 11-12% protein in organic homegrown wheat, the gluten structure more than offsets the decrease in the protein percentage during bread baking. It has really surprised bakers who’ve seen bread baked successfully with organic wheat in tests. If millers are going to use more homegrown cereals they’ll have to readjust the benchmark by which they accept grains."