IT was the big green, clean drive for the early 21st century. Two decades ago, after a series of food scares, Scotland was a pioneer of organic farming. By 2002, nearly a twelfth of the nation’s agricultural land was organic, more than twice the figure for England and much of the rest of the EU.

And yet, almost unnoticed, Scotland has lost its early lead. Two-thirds of what was once organic land has reverted to conventional farming just as other nations soar ahead. Scots, hit by first the financial crash and then Brexit uncertainty, consume far less chemical-free food than most other western Europeans.

Even after years of gradual increase in demand, the total market for organic food and drink in Scotland last year was less than a twentieth of that of Denmark, a country of roughly the same size.

In 2016 the Scottish Government moved to stall the decline with a new plan of subsidies and support. The number of producers is at a six-year-high and the amount of land farmed originally has stabilised.

But with reforming agriculture now a global climate change priority, can Scotland, and its multi-billion-pound food and drink industry, now catch back up with faster-moving rivals?

The Shoppers

William Swanson knows his food. Or rather, he knows what can be in his food. And that worries him.

The retired analytical chemist is doing his messages, squinting at the ingredients and provenance of some chilled tofu.

After a career checking, among other things, how much pesticide or herbicide is in what we eat, Mr Swanson takes care of himself.

So he, wife Janette and daughter Louise - all vegetarians - are browsing in Locavore, a store on Glasgow’s Southside which sells mostly organic or local produce. His concern? Chemicals. His wife’s? Plastics.

“I am really worried about plastics and all the extra packaging you have these days,’ Mrs Swanson. “Here you bring your own bottle and fill it with shampoo.’ Behind her, customers are doing the same with milk from a tap on big stainless steel fridge.

Reuben Chesters likes what she is saying. He runs Locavore. He waves towards his green-grocery section where there is barely any plastic, bar bags of salad. Locavore packages some of its greens - often from its own small-holding in East Renfrewshire - in plastics. But they are biodegradable, made from thistles. Most of his shoppers pick up their loose veg and pop in in their own bags - or paper ones.

But concerns in to plastics and pesticides - the traditional drivers of organic shoppers - now fit in to a bigger picture: global warming.

The Retailer

Later, perched on a old-style dustbin full of loose rice, Mr Chesters, 33, explains that people come in to his store for a whole bunch of reasons - not least the coffees served in 1980s beige cups and saucers at tables next to big picture windows,

Some are health conscious, he says. Some are environmentally conscious. Some both.

But why did he get involved? “Climate change is my initial driver,” he says. “Along the way, everything else has got tied in with it, overall sustainability, for employees and suppliers and packaging and the wider natural environment,

“But climate change is a huge part of it. Food is very often overlooked as a cause of global warming. Food is a third of all greenhouse gases, before we start tying in transport and energy production related to it.”

That makes Locavore, its aisles lightly dusted in good clean earth from loose boxes of organic root veg and its walls painted autumnal yellow, the front line in the war against global warming. It and an entire global movement to make food and farming more sustainable.

Agriculture accounts for around a third of carbon emissions, compared with perhaps a 20th for aviation. Why? Party because conventional farming uses vast quantities of fertilisers made using fossil fuels. The take-away: if we want to save the planet, we are going to need to change the way we farm. What kind of farming avoids chemical fertilisers? Organic.

Tackling climate change, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, is a global and Scottish policy priority. So what are national and local authorities doing to support change in farming?

The Issue

Science - and the the United Nations - is on Mr Chesters' side. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation backs low-impact farming, using a combination of old customs and new technology. "The lower-input of fossil fuel dependant resources and the use of renewable energy all present opportunities for organic agriculture to lead the way in reducing energy consumption and mitigating the negative affects of energy emissions," it says.

The Scottish Government agrees. It has a plan to reboot Scottish organic farming. Its objective is far from hidden: "An increase in the proportion of land managed organically," it declares, "will ultimately help to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions."

That, at least, is the aspiration. The reality is rather different. Mr Chesters is quickly upscaling Locavore, which has its own smallholdings producing salads and even livestock and a chain of loyal suppliers.

But it is far from always easy to source Scottish organics, even for some of the nation's iconic produce. Fancy home-grown organic strawberries? Rapeseed oil? Ayrshire tatties? They do not exist. A single orchard is trying to grow organic apples.

Organic advocates are quick to stress the commercial market for produce has been growing steadily for seven years. The Soil Association, which certifies producers as organic, measured the entire UK market at £2.33 billion in 2018, its highest ever figure. That amounted to 1.5 per cent of all Britain's food and drink. A lot? Yes, but not by international standards.

There is no Scottish breakdown of that number but separate figures suggest the market is disproportionately small north of the border.

The Scottish Government cites data from consumer intelligence firm Kantar Worldpanel suggesting sales of organic groceries were up some 5.4 per cent in the year to March 2018, to roughly £64 million.

That compares with a figure in Denmark, which is roughly the same size as Scotland, of more than £1.5 billion in 2017. More than 13 per cent of Danish groceries are organic. That is the highest figure in the world. In Sweden the figure is nine per cent; in Germany more than five; in France more than four.

And yet it used to be Scotland that was ahead of the game. Back in 2002 some 7.7 per cent of farmland was certified organic. The figure is now hovering at 2.1 per cent, having risen in 2017, for the first time in a decade, to 122,700 hectares. Across the UK the organic acreage fell from 4.3 per cent to 2.9 of all farmland.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the European Union, the trend is the exact office. The share of EU land farmed organically has jumped from 3.6 per cent in 2005 to 6.7 per cent in 2017.

There is a a slight health warning on the scale of Scotland's "crash" in organic acreage. Some of the decline comes from hill farms which have deserted certification schemes, finding the extra expense of going organic was not delivering premium prices for their lamb. These businesses may have owned a lot of rough grazing land but they may not have produced much meat.

The Big Estate

One of the big hill farming businesses to drop out of Scotland's organic scheme was Atholl Estates, effectively three or four huge chunks of Highland Perthshire.

It is 58,000 hectares in total. The equivalent of nearly half Scotland's current total organic land area. It had been an early adopter of organics. So quitting was not taken lightly.

Its general manager, Andrew Bruce Wootton, blamed demand. Just not enough Scots were ready to pay more.

"Sadly, I think it was the loss of premium prices in the market probably caused of downsizing in the organic acreage," he said. "Pre-financial crash there was a very healthy premium, particularly in the aftermath of mad cow disease and other food scares.

"People were concerned about how their food was produced and where it came from. Economic pressures have put pay to that discretion."

Mr Bruce Wootton cited other problems with being organic. His estate's centre-piece, Blair Castle, missed weedkiller on its lawns and gardens. Its appearance, he said, started to "worsen".

But Mr Bruce Wootton raised another issue. There are strict rules on what counts as organic. You can lose certification - and subsidies, such as they are, if you flout them. But that does not mean that conventional farmers or producers cannot use some organic methods.

"We maintain a lot of the standards and approaches the organic scheme taught us," he said. "So there is a legacy improvement to the environment but the scheme was not making commercial sense to us."

The agronomist

Peter Lindsay, breaking off from ploughing a field at his farm, Wemyss, near Forfar, echoes Mr Bruce Wootton's warnings on price.

But he admits that is far from always commercially easy, not least for farmers selling a premium product, such as grass-fed Scotch Beef. Consumers do not, he reckons, want to pay for two premiums, one for for a quality provenance and another for organic.

Mr Lindsay works for SAC Consulting, a spin-off firm of Scotland Rural College, SRUC. One of his jobs is to help farmers go organic. So he knows the score.

“The credit crunch made things difficult. People did not have spare cash. Demand dropped. But now I think we are seeing an increase again.”

Mr Lindsay things the demand is coming first for cheaper produce, vegetables rather than prime beef. But the thing about organic farming is that it is particularly well suited to a traditional mixed farm producing a whole range of produce, from potatoes to cereals to meat.

That is because organic farmers rotate their fields, from livestock to different plants. “With more organics, “Mr Lindsay explains. “You won’t see fields of monoculture. You’ll see more weeds. And you’ll see more wildlife as beetles and other bugs come back - and the birds and animals that feed on them. And there are more native breeds, animals more suited to our grass.”

But with just two per cent of Scotland farmed this way, Mr Lindsay acknowledges it will be a while before Scotland’s agricultural landscape reverts back to is old image.

“Organic is still niche. I cannot see the tide turning completely. There is a long way to go before we notice an impact. In some ways, organics is easier for Scottish farmers. Because it’s a return to traditional methods. It is all very much grass-based.” More organic farming might just mean Scotland starts to look more like itself.

The farmer

That is how is how Robert Shanks feels. He has a dairy farm, Queenscairn, near Kelso, and has recently gone back to organic milk after a few years of conventional. His voice brightens up when he talks about his new-ish herd: Frisians. “I love the black and whites,’ he says. “My grandfather started with them in 1922. They eat our grass and here in the Borders we have as good grass as anywhere.”

When he was making non-organic milk he had Holsteins, an American breed that has bigger yields than Frisians, but which rely more on extra food than the more traditional British animal.

“It is like a turkey that cannot fly,” he said of the foreign cow. “All they do is have feed shoved down their necks.” That feed, of course, is not organic. The cost of organic cereals or soy for as animal feed is prohibitively high. Hence a switch to native breeds.

But that comes at a cost. Mr Shanks’s Frisians produce 10-15 per cent less milk than his old Holsteins. That is 1000 litres less of the white stuff per cow per year.

Mr Shanks, who has 220 cows, has no problem with friends and neighbours, some of whom have more than 1000 animals, sticking with conventional farming. Like Mr Bruce Wootton at Atholl Estates he stresses there are plenty of good clean Scottish producers who are not organic but still pretty environmentally responsible.

“Some people pooh-pooh organic farming,” he explains. “But I say it is like farming 50 years ago but with modern equipment. I think it is the modern way. I do think there is an overuse of chemicals.

“I think the government has abdicated responsibility on food policy to the supermarkets. That is why we have obesity and poor health. And it is why farmers are not making much money - I am living proof of that. Yet we are producing a surplus of food but we’re not rich. That doesn’t make any sense.”

Mr Shanks loves clover, the way farmers like his grandfather, also Robert, kept their grazing lush and green. This little plant helps fix nitrogen in his grass, boosting growth, rather than the chemical fertilisers most farmers use. It is not quite as effective. But it works. That gets Mr Shanks’ Frisians their dinner. And, he swears, it makes their milk tastier.

“Everybody thinks their product is good," he says with pride. "But I think my milk tastes better, because the grass-fed cows produce more butterfat."

The Dairy

Robert Graham buys Mr Shanks' milk, all of it. He's managing director of Scotland's biggest independent dairy, Graham's. Organic business is doing well for him, with year-on-year growth, he says, "in the teens".

A few years ago over breakfast (the dairyman eats Skyr rather than cereal first thing) Mr Graham dreamt up a new product, or rather than old one: organic non-homogenised milk in a bottle. Or milk, as it used to be called, with cream on the top. "It has a different taste profile," he says. "And it has been phenomenal and is selling in Waitrose and Sainsbury's across the UK."

A litre of Mr Graham's whole organic milk sells in Waitrose for £1.15, in a recyclable PET bottle. The same quantity in Locavore is roughly the same, £1.10, though you have to bring your own refillable container.

Those prices, in most supermarkets, would buy you more a standard four-pint, 2.2L plastic bottle of conventional semi-skim.

The Government

Policy-makers know high prices for organics will depress the market, not least with Brexit uncertainty on the horizon.

So the state - with its climate change agenda - has to pick up some of the slack. That means subsidies - and public procurement, for school, military or hospital dinners - to push demand to a scale where prices can come down off their heights.

Take rich Denmark again. Its government last year announced a package of subsidies of nearly £130m for its organic sector in 2018-2019. Ministers in Copenhagen are sniffing export opportunities too. "We are seeing places where the middle class is growing and demand becoming larger. We see it particularly in China,” its food and environment minister, Esben Lunde Larsen, told Ritzau, a news agency.

And Scotland? Conventional food and drink experts are booming. So is the domestic market. So what is the Government here doing to support the shift to organics? It is currently offering subsidies through something called its called Agri-Environment Climate Scheme. A spokeswoman valued such support at £28m. That is not £28m this year. That is the figure for total subsidies, including a predecessor fund, ever, to date. True, there is also free advice on hand for farmers.

Back in 2016, just as figures underlined the scale of decline, the Government announced a plan to increase organics. It ends next year but has no specific targets. How can we measure its success? A spokeswoman said: "We do not support the idea of a land target as conversion to organic is a business decision for each farmer.

"The plan’s vision is to have a vibrant, successful, sustainable, world-renowned Scottish organic food and farming sector by 2020. We are currently assessing progress with delivery of the plan."

There is some good news, she said, the number of organically certified producers was up in 2017, to a six-year-high.

The Government, meanwhile, does not buy much organic good. It is investing in Food for Life, a scheme that helps schools purchase local or organic food for lunches Only two Scottish councils, north and east Ayrshire, have managed to get full gold awards under the project. That means 15 per cent of what goes in their dinners is organic.

Scaling up this scheme, whisper organic market watchers, could be revolutionary. Producers selling to the state, even at low margins, could scale up and cut costs. The difference, they argue, between selling by the cardboard box, and by the palet, is huge.

The Lobby

Champions of organic farming sound upbeat. David Michie, of Soil Association Scotland, concedes the industry took a hit after the financial crisis, from 2008-2011. Demand, is recovering, but by the very nature of farming, supply is taking time to catch. "Perhaps inevitably, farmers did not see organic as a viable option after 2008," he said. "As sales in the market picked up again, there was a lag between this sales growth and the amount of land farmed organically because the conversion period to organic from conventional farming is two years."

Mr Michie said more and more businesses are applying for the conversion subsidies from the government, "in part because support payments are guaranteed for the next five years... but also because organic sales have been growing."

The Soil Association - which has been supporting organic farming for decades before it became trendy in the 1990s and early 2000s - backed the Scottish Government approach.

Mr Michie said: "In the past we’ve found that targets have been counterproductive because increasing production is not always matched by increasing consumption.

"Having organic farming as a National Priority, where farmers are helped to get access to conversion and maintenance support, is more appropriate."

The Shoppers

Back at Locavore in Govanhill, the Swansons have thousands of whole or organic products to choose from, many Scottish. But are they too expensive? Is organics a middle-class fad? Mr Swanson nods.

"If you look at some of the product, you would have to say that if it was not organic or locally sourced, it would be cheaper," he says. "I think there is an argument to say it is for people with money.

But there is a but, he reckons. Root vegetables or salads, even organic ones, are not expensive compared to ready meals. "If you were prepared to make your meals from scratch, your food would be cheaper and tastier," he said.

Mr Chesters listens. His food, he says, is price competitive with the supermarkets' organic range. Locavore is a community interest company, so any profits are for public good. But he admits getting poor people to buy is "tricky"

"Our custom is overwhelmingly local, walking distance," he says.

"We don't have the basement prices or a Lidl or where-ever because we are doing this properly and doing things properly is expensive. We are conscious there are barriers." "We have a good food fund, which is effectively a food bank we operate. We see food, and our spending on food, as a tool for social good.

So when you buy a litre of our milk you're supporting the shop here as a living wage employer, you're supporting a local farmer and you're reducing plastic use."