A few years ago, some friends and I would occasionally have Sunday lunch at the Crown, an organic pub in east London. We loved it: there was a good vibe, the staff were friendly and the meals tasty. That the food was good could simply have been down to the chef's skills rather than the ethical ingredients. Either way, it was pricey. But plenty of other people were just as keen on the pub; it was always packed.
So it was a real shock when, early last year, I learnt it had become a tapas restaurant. Given that the organic pub was so popular, and had received glowing write-ups in the food pages, why change the concept? Only when I had attended the launch of the Soil Association's Organic Market Report 2007 at the Duke of Cambridge in Islington (the UK's only certified organic pub) did I learn the full story. The Duke's proprietor, Geetie Singh, used to own the Crown but, she explained, she had had to sell it to buy out a business partner.
It is a shame that the new owners of the pub did not continue with the existing concept, because the public's appetite for organic food is growing ever larger, according to the Soil Association's latest report--a compilation of data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, organic farms, supermarkets and other grocers such as farm shops, as well as box-delivery and mail-order schemes.
The report found that sales of organic food and drink reached [pounds sterling]1.9bn in the UK last year, an increase of 22 per cent on 2005. On average, retail sales of organic products have grown by 27 per cent per annum over the past decade. This increased demand means that approximately 3.5 per cent of Britain's total agricultural land area is now organically managed. "In 2006, an average of 66 per cent of the organic primary produce sold by the multiple retailers [Tesco, Sainsbury's, Co-op, Morrisons and Asda] was sourced in the UK," it says. So what is driving this change?
In short, consumer demand--a mixture of concern for the environment, animal welfare and their own families' health. Supermarkets are acutely aware of these changes in buying patterns, and in many cases are trying to get ahead of the curve, polishing their green credentials with campaigns to cut down the use of plastic bags at the checkout, or, like Marks & Spencer, by selling their produce loose rather than in sealed plastic packages, part of its Plan A (tagline: "Because there is no Plan B") sustainability programme.
This demand is expected to rise still further as people who are now experimenting with organic food start to buy it regularly. More than half of respondents to a recent survey conducted by Mintel, a market research company, said they had purchased organic fruit and vegetables within the previous 12 months, while one in four consumers had bought organic meat or dairy products.
The environmental case for organic food rests on the Soil Association's stringent standards, which allow farmers to use fewer pesticides (just four, as opposed to 311 chemical pesticides routinely used in conventional farming) and fertilisers.
That animal welfare is also a factor is demonstrated in the shelves piled high with cartons full of eggs. Sales of free-range and organic eggs surpassed those from caged birds for the first time last year.
The role of health in buying decisions is reflected by Mintel research showing that households with children under the age of 15 buy a wider range of organic foods than those with no children. Sales of organic baby foods in Britain rose by 7 per cent in 2006, while sales of non-organic baby foods declined by 2 per cent.
But the perception that organic food is intrinsically better is not shared by some conventional farmers, nor by the UK Advertising Standards Authority, which has on several occasions, most recently in 2005, upheld claims against the association for overstating its case, particularly when it comes to health benefits.
The Soil Association, however, points to a growing body of supportive scientific research, including recent studies indicating that there are indeed health benefits. A University of California, Davis study this year found that organic tomatoes had between 79 and 97 per cent higher levels of immune-enhancing flavonoids than non-organic tomatoes. Another study by Glasgow and Liverpool Universities found that organic milk has, on average, 68 per cent higher levels of the essential fatty acid omega-3.
Celebrity chefs may have more influence on public opinion than scientific papers and the Soil Association's leaflets. The emphasis on healthy, free-range and organic food by TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver has encouraged people to ask more questions about where their food comes from, according to Dale Atkinson of the British Retail Consortium. "What the retailers have had to do is respond to this," he says.
An unexpected side effect of organic farming is that it is helping to reverse the decline in the agricultural workforce, which has fallen by 80 per cent during the past 50 years, according to the Soil Association. Britain's organic farms provide roughly 30 per cent more jobs per farm than equivalent non-organic farms, and they are profitable despite employing more people, it says.
Entrepreneurial innovations such as farm shops and box schemes--where fresh organic food is packed and delivered directly to customers--deserve much of the credit for this. One of the findings of the Organic Market Report 2007 is that British retail sales of organic products via organic box and mail-order schemes increased by 53 per cent to [pounds sterling]146m last year. Helen Browning, the Soil Association's director of food and farming, says this "confirms strong public support for local, seasonal and organic food".
How to provide food with low levels of pesticides and fertiliser isn't the only ethical issue facing the industry. Another is its carbon footprint. Organic farming typically uses 30 per cent less energy than non-organic agriculture, the association says. And some artificial fertilisers are linked to climate change, both in their production and because, when used, they release nitrous oxide, which is up to 310 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
The Soil Association has been lobbying the government to encourage people to choose locally grown, organic food to reduce the industry's carbon footprint. While the government, it says, is keen to emphasise energy efficiency in other areas of people's lives, it has not been vocal about "planet-friendly" food. "The government has been supportive of organic farming," says the Soil Association's policy director, Lord Melchett. "But what they haven't done is say to people, 'Why don't you eat more locally grown, seasonal food?'"
And the reason for this? "The government is scared of giving advice where it may be criticised by powerful groups, such as the non-organic farming lobby," says Melchett.
Despite that perceived reticence, the market is already responding to the call for local food. Tesco has set up a local sourcing office in the south-east and has launched a "local milk" choice.
However, the climate-change issue creates a dilemma for ethical eaters: how would agricultural workers in the developing world fare if more people opted to buy only home-grown produce? The Fairtrade Foundation, which looks out for the interests of poor agricultural workers in developing countries, is not keen on the argument that buying only locally grown food will save the world from climate catastrophe. "Is it ethical to put the burden of the carbon footprint on growers in developing countries?" asks Chris Davies, its head of policy. "Do we want to punish poor people in developing countries? There's a lot we could do ourselves."
The air miles required to transport food from the developing world to markets such as Britain represents only a small part of a bigger carbon footprint for food production, Davies says. The total footprint (including air miles) of some agricultural products grown in African countries is often lower than the carbon footprint of the same products grown in northern Europe, partly because extra energy is needed to compensate for our colder climate.
Also, many foods demanded by consumers simply cannot be produced locally on a large scale. "Coffee and bananas are not grown in a temperate climate, so there's no conflict," says Davies, who argues that if consumers insist on buying certain foods from abroad, "then let's give them a Fairtrade choice".
Fairly traded food is another ethical movement that is growing at an astonishing rate. Between 2001 and 2006 the estimated retail value of Fairtrade-certified product sales grew almost six times to [pounds sterling]290m a year. Some Fairtrade foods have seen substantial market penetration.
Fairtrade bananas, for example, will account for 30 per cent of all bananas sold in Britain by the end of this year. Fairtrade coffee, by comparison, amounts to just 8 per cent of total coffee sales in the UK.
Davies attributes the growth in ethical food to two phenomena. "Consumers are looking at value more broadly than just price. More significantly, the large supermarkets are making a wholesale switch--at least for some of their products--to Fairtrade." This, he says, explains the success of Fairtrade bananas. When Sainsbury's and Waitrose decided to source their entire supply from Fairtrade growers it produced a "step-change" effect.
Davies believes similar success can be achieved with other products from the developing world and says that the Fairtrade Foundation is working hard with retailers to identify which Fairtrade products will sell well.
The lesson appears to be that consumer power works. People can protest and lobby governments to change the world for the better. But major retailers, whose purchasing decisions often affect the fate of farmers in the UK and abroad, will sit up and notice when people are more discriminating about what they shop for and where they buy it.
Jon Mainwaring is an award-winning freelance business journalist…