Organic Foods: A Natural Reaction the Revolution in Our Eating Habits Continues, Fuelled by Food Scares and Agricultural Crises. Yet Britain Lags Behind Europe in the Rush to Go Organic
Nicholson-Lord, David, The Independent (London, England)
It's harvest time in the world of agriculture, and in the infinitely smaller world of organic agriculture, it promises to be the best in living memory. The growing army of farmers, food manufacturers and retailers who count themselves among the UK's organic movement have nominated October as Organic Harvest Month and will be asking consumers to eat at least one chemical-free breakfast next month to "taste the difference". If recent experience is anything to go by, people won't need too much encouraging.
The organic food business is booming, in a way that would have seemed improbable a decade ago and inconceivable a generation ago. Industry reports tell a consistent story of accelerating consumer demand, rocketing sales, proliferating outlets, and new allies in powerful places - not least some of the big supermarket chains. They also give a remarkably uniform account of what has fuelled the boom - loss of confidence among consumers in what the Soil Association, the leading promoter of organic food in the UK, calls the "integrity" of the (conventional) food supply system.
But popularity has also brought problems, chiefly high prices and rising imports. It's all a question of supply and demand: in the UK at least - where the organic star has risen much later than in many of our European neighbours - our new-found appetite for organic food is not matched by our production of it. An estimated 70 per cent of the stuff we eat is, therefore, imported, mainly from Germany, Holland and Italy.
Organic food has been on something of a roll since the late Eighties, when Britain appeared to rediscover environmentalism and green consumerism was born, but the current boom is more recent in origin. Datamonitor, the market research firm, puts the take-off date at 1996, since when consumer demand and retailer investment have together produced a doubling in market size. Last year the UK market was worth around pounds 340 million; by 2002 it is expected to be 7-8 per cent of the total food market, with a potential retail value of over pounds 1bn.
But it's a European phenomenon too. Sales of organic food in Western Europe have grown by 70 per cent since 1994: the forecast this year is a total of pounds 3.3bn. Health-conscious Germany is the biggest market but Austrians, who grow the most, also eat the most - a pointer for Britain, no doubt, where we currently grow the least.
It's intriguing to speculate on why affluent, urban, industrial Europe has suddenly been seized by the same collective passion. Datamonitor gives four main reasons. First, organic food fits into the wider trend towards healthier food; it can be both low-fat and fortified with vitamins and minerals. It has a high level of natural nutrients that are often lost in the heavy processing of conventional food and drinks. Many consumers believe it's safer to eat because it is free of pesticide residues and definitively not genetically modified. And many also feel it's "morally correct" to eat organic food as the farming system that produces it is based on good ecology and animal welfare. One might also add that the controversy over genetically modified food, which has blown up over the past couple of years, has thrown new light on the whole question of food purity and environmental well-being.
A survey last year found that 78 per cent of us want to buy food grown without pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers, indicating, as the Soil Association argues, tremendous support for the organic food sector, in principle at least. Most consumers - 83 per cent, according to a poll by the Consumers' Association - buy organic to avoid pesticides. This is followed by 75 per cent who do so because it's kinder to the environment, 70 per cent who are worried about the intensive rearing of animals, 68 per cent who think it tastes better, 40 per cent who want to support local farmers and 36 per cent who are worried about BSE. …