What is the future for organic food in the UK? As a product with a price premium of anything between 30% and 100% over the non-organic equivalent, the prospects look grim.
Sales have fallen by about 20% over the past two years, so as disposable incomes stagnate or decline, organic sales will probably do likewise. Only true believers, who make up barely a third of all those who buy organic, are likely to stay loyal.
And yet non-organic premium ranges and local and regional foods as a category still seem to be holding their own and even growing. So the problem with organic is only partly about price.
It seems shoppers are buying premium and local foods primarily because they taste better than the alternatives and are seen as offering good value for money. If you buy organic, however, you're more likely to do so because you believe, despite the lack of conclusive scientific evidence, that it's better for you hence the continuing strength of organic babyfoods. The other reasons for buying organic, such as the environment and animal welfare, which the Soil Association is now pushing, are more generic and less persuasive.
Two more years of decline may be disastrous for producers and retailers alike. Farm conversions will dry up and some farmers who have converted may go back to non-organic production. On the high street, including those well-heeled rural communities where organic enthusiasts can usually be found in significant numbers, specialist organic shops, like many others, are feeling the pinch. Customer footfall is down and the cost base is up.
The Soil Association wants more support from government. Dream on. Self-help is the only way forward. First, seize every favourable piece of scientific evidence and push it hard. Health is your USP. Something helpful should emerge sooner or later from one of our universities.
Second, get closer to the big retailers. As supermarkets account for 75% of organic sales and are now discounting selected products, organic producers will be even more dependent on the multiples as the independent sector shrinks.
Finally, get more organic farmers and others at the sharp end to speak for the industry. Invite those paid-up members of the anti-supermarket tendency who populate organic conferences to peddle their prejudices elsewhere.
Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant.