Shoppers Want Their Ethics on a Plate: Consumers Are Demanding to Know What Exactly Is in Their Food, Where It Came from, and How the Growers Are Treated. but as Retail Chains Embrace "Organic", "Free Range", "Locally Sourced" and "Fair Trade", Conflicts Are Emerging, Writes Jon Mainwaring
Mainwaring, Jon, New Statesman (1996)
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. …