As far as good publicity for the organic industry goes, it doesn't get much better than a front page splash in a national paper saying 'Official: Organic really is better'.
The claim was made on the back of EU-backed research suggesting organic fruit and veg contained as much as 40% more antioxidants than standard produce and organic milk up to 80% more nutrients than conventional milk. It supports the organic industry's view that organic is better for the environment and a healthier option.
But will it translate into higher demand, and if it does, how will a sector struggling to fulfil volume of orders, especially in key categories such as dairy, meat and produce, cope?
According to Soil Association research, UK sales of organic products are just under £2bn and will be worth £3bn by 2012. This figure may be conservative. Until now the FSA has maintained there is no concrete proof that organic is healthier than standard food. This has arguably kept a lid on demand. However, negative media about mainstream farming has played into organic's hands. A C4 Dispatches programme on intensive farming in 2006 prompted a 65% increase in sales of organic milk for two months, for instance. Though sales subsequently fell back, they remained higher than pre-2006 levels.
Some expect the latest round of positive PR to prompt a spike in organic sales. With the FSA now assessing whether it needs to change its stance, the prospects for the sector could get an even more significant boost in the long term.
The problem is the short term.
If demand spikes as sharply as it did last year with organic milk, but across the board, it will put immense pressure on supply, warns Simon Wright, founder of O&F Consulting, the organic and Fairtrade consultants.
"The highest annual growth rate recorded was 55% and this was hard to manage," he says, adding that 20% would be a more manageable figure. "These results will encourage households to buy more organic lines. They will encourage more UK farmers and manufacturers to move into organic."
The question is: will enough make the switch to satisfy demand? "We are concerned about another boom-and-bust cycle and farmers are being conservative about switching to organic," admits Robin Maynard, campaigns director at the Soil Association.
If they don't, there could be a return to a reliance on imports, reversing the downward trend of recent years. At the moment, just 30% of organic food in the UK is imported, down from 70% in 2002. If the UK had to look to Africa and Eastern Europe, this could rise dramatically, which wouldn't sit well with the Soil Association's recent edict that organic imports should be strictly controlled.
Research or no research, demand will continue to rise, says Professor Carlo Leifert, co-ordinator of the four-year project. "The trend for organic consumption has risen consistently for the past 15 years except for the 2001-2002 stagnation and will continue to grow," he says. "Even if the FSA decided that these nutritional benefits aren't enough to change its stance, sales will still rise."
Whether or not the research prompts a spike in demand, the long-term growth prospects should be manageable, say experts - as long as UK farmers are on board. n