Organic sector ‘needs more backing’ to help growing market thrive

Organic red peppers

Organic sales in the UK would apparently benefit from policies that promote wider accessibility among consumers

Martin Sawyer Soil Association
Martin Sawyer, chief executive of the Soil Association’s certification arm, claims there are innovative organic farms and processing businesses in the UK that need encouragement and support

Despite growing UK consumer appreciation for organically-grown fresh fruits and vegetables, and sales projecting an upward trend year-on-year, industry representatives claim the UK government’s support for the organic sector is lacking, hampering the potential for significant expansion to be realised and resulting in missed opportunities. Produce Business UK investigates

Read this PBUK article on the rising success of organic produce in the UK.

Steven Jacobs, business development officer at organic producer certification body Organic Farmers and Growers, believes the UK is potentially one of the strongest organic markets in the world, but says there remains a vast difference in government support for organic in the UK, in comparison to countries such as Germany, France and Denmark.

Compared with some of its European Union counterparts, Jacobs argues that the UK government’s support for the organic sector is “woeful”, claiming current official policy is short-sighted.

He argues that more backing for organic is needed to take advantage of growing interest in the category, particularly from younger consumers. “The big growth in the sector is coming from the under 30s – they are the people expressing a preference for organic and if you look at trends going forward that’s where we can expect growth to come from,” he says.

Such sentiments are echoed by UK-based organic retailer As Nature Intended’s managing director Jeff Martin, who states that the UK government needs to give far greater backing to the organic sector for further growth to be achieved.

“If you look at somewhere like France, they have had policies in place to increase growth in organic supermarkets and availability to consumers – there’s a massive market over there which hugely overshadows what we are doing in the UK,” he says.

“Organic needs to stop being seen as a food for the middle classes and needs to be something that is accessible for all. The government needs to get behind it and push more growth in organic and make it accessible for everybody.”

Martin Sawyer, chief executive of the Soil Association’s certification arm, agrees with both Jacobs and Martin that unlike the UK many mainland European governments have played an important role in recognising the importance of supporting the organic approach, and what he calls a key position in improving the environment and producing healthy food.

“The UK lags behind every leading European country in organic market size compared to population,” he says. “The UK needs leadership at government level to build a meaningful organic agenda into the new 25-year Food and Farming Strategy. There are great innovative farms and processing businesses in this sector that simply need to believe they are being given encouragement and support.”

Indeed, the organic market has arguably been somewhat overshadowed in recent years by the Fairtrade movement, whose straightforward message has garnered substantial media attention and helped to bring the category to public attention.

Sawyer describes Fairtrade as a great example of a focused single cause being really well marketed, whereas, in contrast, he claims organic represents a much more complex message that’s built around the integrity of inputs and processes. This message, he says, is valued by consumers from many standpoints; encompassing environmental concerns, taste and health benefits.

Strength in depth

Jacobs – whose organisation Organic Farmers and Growers provides producers with support, covering distribution, storage, waste, forward contracts and quality issues – suggests all areas of the sector need to start talking with each other more than they have been, so shoppers can understand what is involved in getting organic products to their tables. “There has been a lot of wet years and farmers have been hit – they need support from shoppers,” he says.

“We’re looking at how to make these businesses more profitable and more sustainable. Organic is a good, low energy system, which has clear advantages for farmers, a clear market for consumers and the fact that we are not supplying more is a missed opportunity.”

Jacobs says the strength of the sector is demonstrated by the achievements being recorded by his organisation’s licensees. One he chooses to highlight is Bristol-based Essential Trading, a cooperative that distributes organic goods “every day, every week” to some 1,500 shops across the UK, and which recorded 10% annual growth all through the recession, from 2007 onwards. Distributing primarily to small independent stores, Jacobs says companies like Essential Trading have benefited from a perception of quality among consumers.

Organic fresh produce box schemes, which Jacobs claims do not receive as much media coverage as they merit, have also performed steadily over the past year, while others have reported growth, he says.

However, even this sector has not been without its difficulties, especially for growers.

“Some growers that sell into large box schemes can find it a challenge because they might be asked to grow something and may not have the crop bought in the end,” says Jacobs.

“What we would really like to see is support right the way through the chain for in-season, British-grown organic products. There is some really good organic produce being grown in the UK, but producers need support.” 

Organic vegetables

Future prospects

Organic September is a recent initiative launched by the Soil Association which the organisation hopes can help boost sales with or without government backing.

“The traction that Organic September has generated in only two years is amazing,” says the organisation’s Sawyer. “This past September was only the second year of the campaign and it’s been hugely successful in building support and awareness of organic, especially in the media.”

Filtering through to foodservice and catering

Sawyer claims significant coverage in national print and online newspapers demonstrates how the Soil Association’s message about the health and environmental benefits of organic is resonating and growing beyond its traditional base of ‘green’ consumers.

However, Sawyer argues that the increasing interest in organic is not only having an impact in grocery retail, but is also now reaching the foodservice and catering sectors.

“Beginning this year, I think we’re going to see a renaissance of organic in catering and eating out,” he predicts.

Sawyer claims that over £7 million is now spent on organic ingredients through Food for Life Catering Mark holders, on top of “countless other” restaurants, cafes and shops that all serve organic. Such outlets will also be given a showcase at the Soil Association’s upcoming BOOM (Best of Organic Market) Awards, which take place in May.

Supporting this growth, Sawyer continues, are significant numbers of new organic products coming to market, with more than 1,000 new lines certified by the Soil Association during the first half of 2015.

The strength of the organic sector in the UK’s neighbouring markets could well play to the advantage of British organic producers too, Sawyer adds. “There is significant growth in European markets such as Scandinavia and Denmark, both in the retail and public sectors – this provides a significant export opportunity for organic brands in the UK,” he concludes.


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