Organic sector contracts in UK, though Soil Association remains hopeful
Tuesday 06 March 2012
Although the sale of organic foods in Britain has continued on a downward trend this year, the sector is reporting a return to growth after a three year decline which began with the onset of the recession.
The Soil Association Chief Executive Helen Browning reported that more support from retailers is behind the overall growth in the organic product market, although foods are still flagging. Ms Browning made the comments at the Soil Association's annual conference, held last week in London.
However, the figures for 2011 are not promising; Sales of organic goods fell 3.7 percent in the UK last year, making the sector worth £1.67 billion. The decline was largely driven cuts on the shelf space given over to organic products by large retailers, whose sales of organic products fell 5 per cent.
However, in contrast to falling sales in the supermarkets, sales in small scale retailers and farm shops were reportedly much healthier in 2011. Veg box schemes and mail order sales also rose 7 per cent last year. Nevertheless, his will do little for the aspirations of the Soil Association, the UK’s largest organic certification body, which has attempted under Helen Browning to bring organic into the mainstream.
The Soil Association has been urged to focus more on promoting the benefits of organic produce and on eliminating the image of organic produce as elitist and expensive if it hopes to achieve this. Helen Browning has herself been critical of the image organic aficionados such as Prince Charles and Sting give to the sector. Consumers have been shown to opt increasingly for higher welfare, locally sourced and Fairtrade goods than certified organic ones.
The Soil Association has also blamed the government for neglecting the sector when it comes to research spending, in contrast with governments from continental Europe, including notable agricultural heavyweights France and Germany. The Soil Association chief executive lamented, "In most other European countries the governments really support organic; organic is very normal, they put it into their public procurement targets, they talk about it very positively. Here we haven't got a government that is saying that kind of thing and I think that makes a big difference because people feel it's not for them - I think we've put organic food on a bit of pedestal."
The fall in sales in the UK stands in contrast to global boost of 8.8 per cent for the organic sector in 2011; in Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, sales of organic products rose 10 per cent, in France 12 per cent and in Italy, birthplace of the slow foods movement, the organic sector reported a 15 per cent increase in sales.
In the UK, the land area given over to organic production fell again, this time by 2.8 per cent, meaning organic production accounts for 4.2 per cent of UK farmland. Speaking at the Soil Association conference, Helen Browning urged the organic sector to form closer bonds with the farming and research sectors to share knowledge and improve resilience to the challenges ahead.