Are we giving up on organic?

A new market report raises speculation as to whether the organic dream is over. The Soil Association’s (SA) 2010 Organic Market Report shows that sales of organic produce fell by nearly 13% in 2009: dairy by 6.5%, fruit and vegetables by 14.8% and fresh meat by 22.7%. Bakery items were the hardest hit at 39.8%.

The recession has been blamed-the leader of one countryside organisation told Country Life his wife is ‘banned’ from buying organic-as higher prices means it’s first to be struck from the shopping list. However, the news comes in the wake of announcements by other ‘ethical’ labels of a successful 2009: in February, the Fairtrade Foundation reported a 12% rise in sales.

A further blow for a product saddled with a luxury, or even elitist, reputation was the Food Standards Agency’s conclusion that organic food wasn’t necessarily healthier than conventionally farmed produce, and the zeitgeist preached by many rural campaigning organisations, such as the Women’s Food and Farming Union, now puts the main emphasis on buying local. It also seems that the ‘five a day’ message isn’t entirely getting through; a report by Freshfel Europe last week found that, in 2008, Britons ate 11% fewer vegetables than the previous five-year average.

According to the farming industry, there are still several problems with organic production. ‘The conversion process [to organic] takes a number of years and, during that time, farmers can see a drop in income, despite money from organisations such as Natural England,’ says Clare Smith, the NFU’s food chain advisor. ‘There has certainly been a slowing down in conversions as the market has become less stable.

And at the moment, conventional farming can be better in terms of environmental impact because a high yield is produced efficiently in a small space.’ Organically managed land in the UK grew to 2,900 square miles last year, up 9%, but it still only represents 4.3% of UK farmland.

The amount of land in conversion to organic fell by 6% between 2007 and 2008, although the general trend has been for organic conversion to be on the rise. A Cumbrian farmer whose mixed farm has been fully organic for a year says his most profitable area is dairy, but that he can’t compete with larger farms.

Chris Addison explains: ‘We had to add value or put our milk into secondary products such as cheese. But being organic gets us 31p a litre, compared with 22p for non organic.’ His farm is also rated as a higher-level stewardship, but he points out: ‘A nature friendly farm has to be profitable. If we had to, we would revert to conventional methods, although the important lessons we’ve learnt about sustain-ability would stay.’ Susannah Glynn

On the up

It’s not all doom: organic milk was up by 1%, baby food by 20.8% and health and beauty products by one-third. Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, which have 47% of the market share between them, have reported customer loyalty to organic and the former predicts a rise in sales of 3%-5% for 2010.

‘The future will be organic simply because conventional farming methods are just turning oil into food,’ stresses the SA’s policy director Peter Melchett. ‘Eventually, as the price of oil continues to soar, organic farming will be cheaper than conventional farming.’

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