Has Organics Lost The Plot?

This article first appeared in Natural Products magazine, April 2008

Simon Wright

The Case For The Prosecution

Exhibit A “‘Bland organic’ in danger of becoming just another brand” says a new study from the Open University. The report concludes that the organic sector has fallen into the habit of using ‘bland and ineffectual promotional language’ instead of focussing on the real but more challenging selling points of organic such as the benefits of its environmentally-friendly production methods.

Exhibit B ” ‘Consumers prefer regional foods over organic’ suggests dairy co-operative First Milk. Ten separate focus groups maintained that regional foods are the most important as consumers feel they are helping local producers. First Milk also alleged that many consumers “seem unsure of where organic food comes from”

The Challenges Facing Organics

Many of the challenges facing the organic sector are caused by its enormous success. Annual sales now exceed £2billion  with an annual growth rate of 22% year-on-year. Although these sales only represent 2-3% of total food sales, in terms of influence organics punches well above its weight in leading debates on GM, local food production, provenance, childrens food and now nano-technology.

Certainly sustained market growth is causing problems with ingredient supply. UK farmers are not converting to organic production fast enough to supply rising demand, which means that imports are filing the gap. However those countries such as China and India who have in the past been significant exporters of organic crops can now sell more of their products on their domestic markets. Some agricultural land is being lost to bio fuel production (check out The Archers if you need briefing on this one). Throw in two years of poor harvests (possibly climate-change induced) and you have organic ingredients such as sugar in limited supply for the first time in living memory.

Another problem with rapid market growth is how ‘normal’ organics has become. Reduced/no inputs, full farm to fork traceability, free-range, high animal welfare, ethical sourcing, no artificial ingredients and environmental sustainability – these were the buzz words around organics 10 years ago. Today these terms are mainstream food industry baseline standards. So where is the clear blue water between organics and everything else ?

The Case For The Defence

Organics is unique in offering a joined-up response to the challenge of local sourcing, sustainable food production, human health, animal welfare, food quality and great taste. The challenge is: how do we explain that organics is about all these things  at the same time?  The most popular ‘ethical’ food symbol in the UK is the logo of the Fairtrade Foundation, recognised by 54% of UK adults. However the Fairtrade Foundation is totally single-minded in its communications, always saying that ‘Fairtrade guarantees a better deal for Third World Producers’.  Initial discussions within the Organic Trade Group suggested that a single message for organics would be equally popular. But which message ? Organics represents a wide range of things to a wide range of people and whilst this is less than ideal from a brand-marketing perspective this holistic set of values is integral to the organic offer and reductionism is unlikely to work.

The Way Ahead: Four Things We Can Do

  1. Talk To Other People
    Last year it became apparent that at least some organic consumers were unhappy with organic food being imported into the UK by air.  The Soil Association launched a consultation process which consulted widely and actively. By the end of the process the Soil Association understood the issues involved far better, and those consulted respected (but did not necessarily agree) with the proposed Standard.
  2. Be Emotional
    Research suggests a new group of younger consumers are buying into organic who are moved as much by emotion as by logic. When people in focus groups start saying “I buy organic because it feels the right thing to do”  we are moving into a very different area that is not dependent upon ‘facts’ .
  3. Explain Why Non-Organic Is Too Expensive
    Even after the whole Hugh / Jamie chicken thing Tesco dropping the price of broiler chickens  to £1.99 produced an increase in sales of 140%. Those customers did not care enough about animal welfare, taste, sustainability or the true cost to society of a £1.99 chicken.
  4. Stick To Our Guns
    Even Defra now accept that organic food production offers environmental benefits over non-organic. Carlo Leifert’s work at Newcastle University on is demonstrating the nutritional superiority of organic food over non-organic and has prompted a review by the Food Standards Agency. In The Observer Book Of Food, Soil Association Director Patrick Holden writes, “Organic farming will become the predominant farming system in the next 20 or 30 years because we can’t afford to carry on going the way we are. Our current agriculture produces 30% of our CO2 emissions…Organic farming produces half, largely due to the lack of nitrogen fertilizers. When you consider that 2007 looks like being the year for peak oil production, soon we will not be able to send things around the globe as we do now. Sustainable, localised agriculture is the way ahead”.