The biggest British organic food organisation was told to keep ahead of the rest of the food industry last week. With organic food prices under pressure, the sector is feeling a lot less comfortable than it did a year ago, reports Chris Lyddon.

The Soil Association, meeting at Cirencester’s Royal Agricultural College, announced a new deal to put its logo next to that of the Fair Trade Foundation, on foods not just from struggling farmers in the developing world, but also from UK organic farms.

Its president, Jonathan Dimbleby, complained that the organic sector was not looking as immune to the problems of conventional farming as it had done even twelve months ago. “Prices are barely, if at all, high enough even to cover the cost of production,” he said. “Now we find ourselves in the same desperate plight as our non organic counterparts. What’s gone wrong? We’re in crisis.”

It was not enough for the sector to retreat into its comfortable niche. “There is certainly no way out for organic producers down that cul-de-sac labelled ‘the niche’. The founders of the organic movement didn’t set out to create a niche,” he said.

Fair Trade pilot scheme announced
One response from the Soil Association was to announce a joint pilot scheme with the Fair Trade Foundation, under which the Soil Association and Fair Trade logos will appear side by side on packets. The first product expected to be labelled in this way will be grapes from South Africa, but it is expected that the scheme could also apply to UK produce.

“We will explore how the philosophy and principles of fair trade can be applied in the UK,” said Harriet Lamb, Director of the Fair Trade Foundation. But she stressed there was a long way to go. “We emphatically have not sorted out all the domestic details,” she said.

Soil Association Policy Director Peter Melchett accepted that there would be problems defining a fair price. “We want to look at the margin taken throughout the food chain including the margin taken by supermarkets,” he said.

One aim is to cut down on inspection costs, potentially with a joint inspection system. Currently the Fair Trade system costs the producer 2% of sales, while Soil Association accreditation costs 0.3%. “There are huge savings to be achieved by joint inspection. Not just in financial terms, but also in inconvenience to the producer,” said Soil Association Chair Craig Sams.

Fair Trade is a successful initiative in terms of sales, according to Harriet Lamb, who put growth at 50% a year.

Sainsbury’s leading the chase
Sainsbury’s means to be the first supermarket selling the jointly logoed products, Alison Austin, Senior Manager, Sustainability and Product Safety, told the conference. “We are intending to launch fairly traded organic grapes from South Africa and organic bananas from Grenada. These commitments will allow us to become the first supermarket in the UK to stock Fair Trade organic fruit.

But she reminded the audience of organic enthusiasts that price dominates the food market. “It is an understatement to say that food retailing is an extremely competitive sector,” she said. “The market place is dominated by price. In reality all major retailers are having to drive costs out of the business.”

There is, however, a growing band of customers who look for things in terms of value and integrity rather than price. “Customers must be aware that it costs more to produce [fairtrade/organic food],” she said.

Austin restated Sainsbury’s aim to cut the imported proportion of organic products to 45% by 2004. At the moment some 70% of organic food sold in Britain is imported. “We’re currently ahead of the market, with imports at 60%,” Austin said. “By the end of 2004 we will be 55% British.”

Organic sector must change
American Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation,” an attack on the domination of the US food industry by big business, said that the organic sector had to change to stay ahead. “We have to go beyond organics and look at the people and culture on the soil as well as the soil itself,” he said. The mainstream food industry was getting involved. “I wouldn’t be surprised if soon there’s an organic Big Mac. It would be better but it wouldn’t be enough,” he said.

“I’m not anti-corporation,” he said. “I think private corporations are the most effective way for people to share risk. It’s a question of power and a healthy balance of power.”

“No other economic activity can occur without agriculture,” he said. Cities could not exist without agriculture. “It’s more important even than what kind of trainers you wear.”

Schlosser took McDonald’s as a perfect symbol of the changes in the US food industry. “The US has not always been a fastfood nation,” he said. Fastfood was a fairly recent phenomenon. “As recently as 1968 there were only a thousand McDonald’s. We had an extremely strong and diverse agricultural economy.”

Costs of conformity
McDonald’s had decided to grow, on the basis of uniformity and conformity. “It didn’t buy from small plants.” By 2002, according to Schlosser, McDonald’s was the largest purchaser of beef, pork and potatoes in the US and the second largest purchaser of poultry, behind KFC.

“What it has brought us is very cheap, very low quality food and at what cost?” he said. The costs didn’t just affect farmers. There were huge health costs. “Some 60% of American adults are obese or overweight. There are huge environmental costs,” he added.

With a population of 280 million, the United States has 13 beef slaughterhouses processing most of the cattle. “These huge operations produce more waste than cities, but don’t have the same treatment facilities,” he said. “They’re tremendously effective at spreading pathogens.” Schlosser reckoned one hamburger could contain the meat from thousands of animals. “These agribusiness companies are imposing their costs on the rest of society,” he said.

Brits leading EU fastfood consumption
But the British could not afford to relax when looking at America’s problems. “The British eat more fastfood than any other nation in Europe,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you have the highest rate of obesity in Europe. Twenty-five percent of four year olds are overweight, with 10% obese.”

There was no reason at all to see conventional agriculture and the concentration of the food industry as inevitable. “Was this all part of some great plan? This was not inevitable at all,” Schlosser concluded.