A recent report has claimed that sales growth in the UK organic sector has started to slow. In spite of this, the Soil Association and other organic campaigners remain positive about the future of the sector, as Chris Lyddon reports. 

A cut of more than 50% in sales growth might worry some people. But for Britain’s Soil Association, and the government minister responsible for the organic sector, Michael Meacher, prospects for organics remain a highlight of the food industry.

Certainly Meacher is not discouraged by slower growth. “Growth of 15% is something most industries would die for,” he told the Soil Association’s national conference for food processors in London. “There is clearly a huge demand among people in Britain for organic food.”

The Soil Association, Britain’s leading campaigning and certification body in the organic sector, clearly has a friend in Meacher. “I think this is one of most exciting and rewarding areas for government,” he said. He promised that the government would be driving organic sector growth forward. “I want to keep very closely in touch with you,” he told conference delegates.

According to the Soil Association’s Organic Food and Farming Report 2002, which was launched at the conference, in the year to April 2002, sales of organic food rose 15% to reach £920m (US$1425m), compared with the 33% rise the previous year.

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Sector growth still “phenomenal”

“15% in a market of this size is still quite phenomenal growth”

Jane Seabridge of Taylor Nelson Sofres, which provided the statistics, made clear that the sector was still growing strongly. “15% in a market of this size is still quite phenomenal growth,” she said. But she warned it was going to take a lot of effort to keep the sector moving ahead at this rate. “Organic food will need more proactive marketing action to enjoy the rates of growth that we’re currently seeing,” she said.

Soil Association director Patrick Holden was not disappointed. “This is a tremendously positive report,” he said.

Rob Haward, the Soil Association’s horticulture manager and one of the report’s two writers, said the rate of growth was still healthy. “The organic sector maintains its position as one of the fastest growing areas within food and drink.”

Organic buyers need to commit to local sourcing

One problem for UK organics has been the high level of imports. In 2001/2002 they have fallen from 70% of sales by retail value to 65%. But 80% of fruit and vegetables and 85% of cereals are imported. “We need to see a genuine commitment from supermarkets to buying British,” Haward said.

The Soil Association has addressed the question of loyalty to UK grown products by producing a range of flag symbols, one each for England, Scotland and Wales, as well as a UK flag symbol, to be used in conjunction with its symbol on packaging. “We think there’s a latent loyalty,” said Holden.

“We need to see a genuine commitment from supermarkets to buying British”

There were problems of supply. A grave need for organic animal feed gave arable farming “probably the greatest opportunity” to convert to organic, according to Holden. At the other end of the spectrum Holden dismissed farmers’ concerns about oversupply in the dairy and lamb sectors in particular. “I don’t have any long term worries about the ability of the market to absorb the supply of milk, or indeed the supply of lamb,” he said.

There is going to be a lot more organic food produced in Britain. The area of fully organic land in the UK almost doubled over the year to 458,600 hectares from 240,000. Including land in conversion 729,550 hectares were organically managed in the UK at the end of April 2002. That constitutes 4.3% of UK agricultural land. In comparison, by the end of 2001 Germany had 3.7% of its agricultural land in the organic sector. Italy has the largest organic area, with 7.1% of land farmed organically.

Most households buy organic – sometimes…

Across the population as a whole, 79% of UK households purchased organic food at least once during the year ending April 2002. But 8% of the buyers buy 60.1% of the organic food, and in any four-week period the proportion of households that buy organic food drops to 30-35%. “What we have to do is move everybody up a rung on that ladder of commitment,” said Holden. Here the conference’s emphasis on education came in. “The more informed they are the more committed purchasers they become,” he said.

Soil Association chair Craig Sams stressed the importance of teaching people about food. “Customers who care most about food quality are most likely to be committed to organic food,” he said. What education there was tended to have the wrong emphasis. “Most of the food education that the public are committed to is focused on food safety – avoiding bugs that often shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” he said. Home Economics had largely disappeared from the school curriculum. “When they leave school they’re quite able to calculate the collision speed of two trains travelling in opposite directions, but they can’t boil an egg or bake a loaf,” Sams said of modern schoolchildren.

All the while they were bombarded with commercials for confectionery and fatty food, Sams said. He had a cynic’s view of the absence of British-style food scares in the United States. “Grocery advertising can be several pages in every paper,” he said. “It explains why there’s never been a food scare in America.”

Frustration over claims

“We know we’re right and anybody who studies the issues agrees with us”

Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett expressed the frustration of many in the organic sector with limits on claims that can be made in advertising. Officials had “a strong feeling that if they accept the benefits of organic, they have to accept the disbenefits (sic) of conventional farming,” he said.

But some in government were starting to accept that there were benefits. “The government has now accepted that this is a system that has all sorts of benefits for the environment. That argument is basically over,” he said. The case in favour of organic food on animal welfare grounds was “overwhelmingly strong.” And there was a real economic advantage. “The figure that does the rounds is 30% extra employment. I think it’s a gross underestimation,” he said.

Expert Analysis

UK Organic Foods

Detailed report on the UK market containing data from 1997-2001, with forecasts to 2006.


There was scope for telling people what was wrong with conventional agriculture. “We do need to tell people about some of the dangers of the farming system that the organic system is going to replace,” he said.

Sams expressed the confidence of the sector. A world organic market worth £16bn was six times the size of the market in GM seed, for example. “We are much bigger and more important,” he said. “We know we’re right and anybody who studies the issues of food and farming in any depth agrees with us.”