UK organic sales will increase this year, the Soil Association insisted today (6 April), despite the economic downturn weighing on certain parts of the sector in 2008.

Leading executives at the Soil Association remained upbeat about the future of organic food in the UK and said demand for organics would continue to grow this year.

Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, predicted "modest growth" in organic sales for 2009, while Helen Browning, the organisation's food and farming director, forecast sales growth of 5%.

In 2008, organic sales inched up by 1.7% to over GBP2.1bn (US$3.09bn), the slowest rate of growth seen by the sector in recent years.

Furthermore, that 2008 figure was boosted by food inflation as consumer anxiety over the economy weighed on organic sales volumes.

In revenue terms, sales of organic fruit, bread and confectionery tumbled as consumers opted instead for lower-priced, conventional products.

Melchett admitted  that the UK organic market had fared less well than its counterparts in North America and Europe during the last quarter of 2008.

However, he shrugged off the assertion that UK organic sales had "fallen of a cliff" in the last three months pot 2008. "If we have fallen off a cliff, it's the most piddling little cliff that there is," Melchett said.

Melchett insisted there remains an untapped market for organic food in the UK and that the sector needs to better communicate the "benefits" the category can bring to consumers.

"There is absolutely no evidence that we have reached [the point] that all people who want to try organic have tried it," Melchett said. "It's now one of our challenges to communicate the benefits of organic food."