Organic Articles: Let's Stick Together

The Organic Consultancy

Let’s Stick Together

by Simon Wright

This article originally appeared in the August 2001 edition of Organic Business.

The response to the recent Money Programme “Organic Dirt” quoted in last months Organic Business illustrates the widespread demand from both industry and consumers for a single organic standard that covers all organic food and drink sold in the UK. But whose standard? Ours, say the Soil Association. The Soil Association charity has a clear remit to promote organic food and farming and is often asked to speak for the entire organic sector. So it is confusing when the Soil Association takes advantage of a public platform to promote its own standards with the apparent aim of demonstrating that the Soil Association “brand” is superior to the “brands” of other certifiers such as OFF and OF&G.

The first problem with this approach is that it naively assumes that consumers are able and willing to distinguish between different certifiers. Consumers want certainty – to all but the most knowledgeable consumer a product is either organic or it is not. The second problem is that every time a certifier such as the Soil Association criticises other organic standards in public this causes a general loss in confidence in all organic certification and therefore devalues the whole organic market. Such behaviour emphasises the difference between current organic standards, when we should be talking about the much larger differences that exist between organic and non-organic.

What worries me is the apparent widening of the gap between the Soil Association and other UK certifiers. The last year has seen a plethora of actual and proposed changes to the Soil Association processing regulations, many of which have produced negative reactions from some of the Soil Association’s licensees, i.e. those of us who finance the Soil Association’s activities. The Soil Association claim that constant upwards revision of organic standards is necessary to meet consumer expectations, although they cannot be specific about what those expectations are. There is an urgent need for research here to find out what consumers expect from organic food, especially those new organic consumers who have entered the market over the last eighteen months. Only then can we decide whether it is possible to formulate organic standards that meet all consumer expectations.

The Money Programme is just one part of a wider media backlash on organics. The backlash is unsurprising: all the good news stories on organics have now been written, and creating a new 1billion organic sector in the highly competitive UK food and drink market was always going to ruffle a few feathers. Negative media comment is almost a rite of passage and we need to stand our ground, refuting those smears which are obviously untrue. We can do this most effectively if we present a united front. Public disagreements between certifying bodies reduce consumer confidence in the overall organic “brand” and give ammunition to those who would denigrate organic food for their own commercial reasons. The obvious parallell here is Old Labour, too busy fighting amongst itself to provide a credible political challenge. We don’t need New Organic, but we do need Organic Unity.