For the past few weeks the
media has been full of stories about the positive contribution organic production is making in terms of nutrition and the environment. We should celebrate the fact that the public is increasingly interested in where its food comes from. Building this awareness is essential, especially at a time when six out of ten children believe potatoes grow on trees.
By providing organic options, people have been encouraged to eat better quality food, engage with farming and appreciate the impact that food production has on both the environment and our health. Yet, 20 years on from the Soil Association's call for 20% organic by 2000, we are still a long way off from our goal of sustainable farming and having food production at the very heart of the UK food supply chain.
Despite rapid growth, sales of organic groceries account for just 1.19% by value of total ambient groceries and 2.09% by value of total fresh and chilled sales, according to latest TNS figures. ACNielsen tells us organic bread makes up 1.4% of the market; organic meat, fish and poultry takes around 4%, while the organic dairy sector has reached roughly 5%. In Denmark organic milk sales now account for 20% of the market - so why is the situation so different here in the UK?
A key factor that has prevented expansion is that organic foods are nearly always difficult and expensive to source and produce. It is this element of risk for producers that has limited the available supply of ingredients from the UK, and therefore market growth.
As consumer demand rises I believe there are two options open to the industry. One is to relax our standards, import more organic produce from abroad and allow flexibility in production criteria.
Like many, I am fundamentally opposed to this. Any relaxation in standards would devalue the organic proposition to such an extent it would drive all long term value from the supply chain and support the cynical and unsympathetic view many people have of the UK food industry. There is a danger that slackening standards and increasing imports could also serve to throttle an already limited UK supply chain.
Our second option is to secure better working relationships with British farmers. Investment in a UK centred organic supply chain would result in greater availability of quality food and ingredients for processors, as well as providing a sustainable system for farmers.
Central to this is the question of how we can encourage larger conventional farms to convert to organic and increase supply in a world post CAP reform. Conversion takes several years and requires a significant financial investment. From an arable perspective, it also results in reduced yields. Many large scale farmers are cautious that current premiums may not be maintained and the conversion process itself will jeopardise the long term commercial viability of their business.
If we believe there is value in UK sourced organic, we need to allay these concerns and provide a sound commercial basis for conversion. Increasingly, I believe that farmer contracts are the benchmark by which our true support for organic will be judged. Providing sensibly priced contracts as an incentive for conversion will do much to ensure local organic supply in the future.
Now is not the time to relax standards and import more. Instead, we should develop a sustainable supply chain that fuels growth in UK grown organic food and
continues to reassure people of the integrity of British food.