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How can the UK organic sector break out of its 1.5% trap? 

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It’s twenty years since I started reporting on the UK organic food and farming scene. So, a personal and professional anniversary of sorts. And since twenty years is a decent interval of time, long enough when looked back at to offer useful perspective, I’ve taken the opportunity to do just that. And it’s confirmed something that I’ve long suspected: judging by one crucial metric, the UK organic sector is busy going nowhere. 

2001 was the year I encountered my first Soil Association Organic Market Report (for the record, I’ve read all 20 that have been published over the subsequent two decades – literally, cover to cover). In the early 2000s, these reports recorded some truly spectacular growth in the UK organic market (+55% in 2001, +33% in 2002). It led to the very bold prediction that organic’s share of the UK food and drink industry would rise from its still tiny 1% in 2001 to 20% by 2005. 

Sadly, it didn’t. Twenty years later, organic’s share of the UK food industry is still just 1.6%1. In fact, for the whole of that period, organic market share has been stuck at around 1.5%.

This might come as a surprise if your memory of this period is of multiple years of double-digit organic growth, regular accounts of organic outpacing conventional and headlines announcing ‘soaring organic sales and consumption’ (of the sort that accompanied the launch of the 2021 Organic Market report, which recorded sales growth of 12.6% for 2020). 

And you’d be forgiven for being surprised because organic share (or penetration) is so rarely mentioned. It’s a figure that has been tucked away at the back of recent Organic Market Reports, and doesn’t make it into press releases or executive summaries – so it doesn’t get reported on by the media. But if we want to have an honest conversation about how we are doing in Britain, and to challenge ourselves as a sector, we absolutely do need to be talking about it.

Organic market share (of a country or region) is one of three key metrics used by the wider organic world to measure development and growth of organic food and farming – the other two being the amount of utilised farmland under organic systems, and the number of organic growers and processors. They’re used each year by IFOAM Organics International (the worldwide umbrella organisation for the organic agriculture movement) and FiBL to record the comparative performance of the organic sectors of over 180 countries in their annual World of Organic Agriculture report. 

Looking at IFOAM/FiBL data on organic market share – which IFOAM says “shows the importance of organic in a given country” – and additional national reporting, it’s clear that the UK now visibly lags behind many of its European neighbours – including countries that ten years ago were organic underperformers. So, whereas we might expect, say, the Nordic countries, to be more culturally primed for organic and have high organic shares (they do, in Denmark organic accounts for 13.6% of the total food market, in Sweden it’s 10%), it’s perhaps more surprising to discover that France (6.5%) and Italy (3.4%) have powered past the UK over this period (Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Estonia and Switzerland also have a larger organic share than the UK). Stepping outside of Europe, we see organic in the USA commanding an impressive 6% of total food sales, and in Canada it’s 3.2%. 

Similar patterns can be seen in data on organic farmland. In 2000, the percentage of UK farmland under organic systems stood at 2% (Soil Association). In 2019, it was still just 2.6% (Eurostat), one of the lowest in Europe (by comparison, Italy was at 15.2%, Spain 9.7%, Germany 7.7%, Portugal 8.2%, France 7.7%, Denmark 10.9% and Sweden 20.4%). And, remember, the backdrop here is of the EU actively pursuing a highly ambitious 25%-organic-by-2030 target for organic farmland (backed by ring-fenced financial support under its European Green Deal, and enabled through a robust and ambitious European Organic Action Plan). So, the likelihood is that the that gap between the UK and the rest of Europe will widen still further, in the short term at least. 

What’s holding UK organics back?
What’s holding organics back in the UK? Are conditions for the development of organics just more difficult in Britain? Well, it’s likely there are a number of factors in play.  

Government and structural funding (lack of) 
When this questions is asked, the most frequently commented on issue is Government and structural support – specifically (although not exclusively) financial support, and the lack thereof. I’m not knowledgeable enough to talk with authority on current support for the UK organic farmers (conversion and management payments) compared to their European and North American counterparts. So I’ll confine my comments to funding for market building and exports. This is where there is an obvious and glaring divergence between the UK and EU countries (and elsewhere in mainland Europe), which – important to point out – predates Brexit. 

Walk around any major international organic trade show and the contrast between the (typically tiny, budget model) UK pavilion and the enormous country stands of EU, North American and Asian nations is stark. Here is a visual illustration of the very different treatment that organics receives in the UK, in terms of financial support for export promotion. Similarly there has been a conspicuous absence of funding for national marketing campaigns (while in Europe, such campaigns have received millions of Euros in national and regional funding). It’s worth recalling that the first ever UK generic organic consumer campaign (the three-year campaign coordinated by the Organic Trade Board, which began in 2011) was funded entirely by UK organic businesses, and later supported with EU match-funding – but received nothing from the UK Government. Additionally, in a number of countries, proactive organic stimulus measures have been enacted – for example, pro-organic public procurement and agroecological transition programmes (both absent in the UK). 

Relations with politicians and policy makers (organic’s ‘awkward squad’ reputation)
The organic movement has always been, in part, a protest movement. Almost by definition it is against things: certain things at any rate, whether it’s synthetic inputs or intensive livestock production, or genetic modification – all, unluckily, the products of some of the most powerful corporate interests on the planet. Not surprisingly, the organic sector risks being cast as the ‘awkward squad’.

The UK organic sector has long had a difficult relationship with government and policy makers. Here, the organic sector’s perceived oppositional behaviour, especially its criticism of conventional farming (which at times has been highly charged, with conventional farmers and food firms accused of ‘poisoning’ the public) has probably created  an obstacle to good relations. While the tetchy relationship between the head of the Food Standards Agency, Sir John Krebs, during his tenure (2000-2005) and the organic sector marked a low point (Krebs famously, and provocatively told the BBC that organic consumers were  “not getting value for money, in my opinion and in the opinion of the Food Standards Agency”), it also seemed to set the tone for future relations with government departments, and with politicians themselves. Over the years there has been marked reluctance on the part of senior British politicians to align themselves with the organic food sector. And successive UK governments have failed to do what governments across Europe have done, which is to recognise that organic is (at the very least) a valuable contributor to the food economy, has built a genuine market for its products, can coexist positively alongside conventional food production – and therefore warrants commensurate market support.

With organic barely mentioned in Defra’s post-Brexit ‘agricultural transition’ plans, prospects for improved relations with Government seem slim – (just recently OF&G chief executive, Roger Kerr, branded Defra’s failure to recognise organic in its flagship Environmental Land Management initiative “myopic” and “ludicrous”). Add to this, ministerial (and departmental) enthusiasm for the deregulation of CRISPR style gene editing, and they look slimmer still. 

The GM issue 
The organic movement has been strongly opposed to genetic modification since the 1990s, with organic proponents among GM’s loudest critics. For the organic sectors in most EU countries this has not presented a special problem. That’s mainly because the governments of most of Europe’s biggest organic markets are politically opposed to the growing of GM crops in their own countries 

(France, Germany, Italy, Denmark and Austria were among 19 EU member states to vote in 2015 for a total ban). The UK has had successive governments (Labour and Conservative) that have been broadly in favour of GM. That has created another layer of difficulties for the UK organic sector in already strained relations with government and policy makers – and added to its awkward squad reputation. With the present government evidently determined to legislate for the deregulation of gene-edited crops, these tensions may well intensify further over the coming years (the reason some experienced organic actors are urging the sector to adopt a less combative approach). 

– The role (and attitudes) of retailers
The retail mix in the UK, in terms of channels that are directly relevant to organic products brands, bears significant differences to other parts of Europe. 

Supermarkets continue to be the biggest channel for organic food (at just under 70%). There is also a mature and thriving box scheme/home delivery channel, and a lively independent retail channel (of around 1,000 small stores). 

But while the UK has some well established specialist chains, Planet Organic, for example (14 stores, including three re-badged As Nature Intended outlets), and Whole Foods Market (six stores across London), what it doesn’t have are the national organic chains that operate across France, Germany and Italy. These not only operate in much higher numbers (in France, there are 680 Biocoop outlets, 200 Naturali stores, 250 La Vie Claire outlets and 120 Bio C’ Bon (now owned by Carrefour) stores, while in Italy there are 200 Natura Si stores), but they also provides a more affordable entry point to organic.   

It’s true that supermarkets also dominate organic food retail in other parts of Europe, notably the Nordics. But here, supermarket ‘buy-in’ to organic is much, much stronger than it is in the UK, and it’s not uncommon to see organic account for 10-15% of total store sales (even in the case of discounters, for example Netto in Denmark, where organic commands a 10% share). 

UK supermarkets meanwhile have been fair-weather friends for the organic sector, best-illustrated by the almost overnight removal of swathes of organic lines at the beginning of the 2007 financial crisis. Implemented on the basis that consumers would abandon premium priced eco products, the move led to plummeting organic sales and ensured a self-fulfilling prophesy.  

Elitism/Them and us/Town and country/Our bling
The elitism charge levelled at organic in the UK has proven remarkably persistent (despite evidence that organic consumers span a wider socio-economic group than is generally recognised). Everything from Boris Johnson’s Daylesford lockdown hamper deliveries to the ‘comedy price’ of organic cherries at Whole Foods Market plays into this ‘elitist organic’ narrative. 

While there are numerous projects that have successfully widened access to organic, and a growing numbers of local grassroots initiatives, organic is widely regarded – and frequently disparaged – as a middle class preserve. Slightly unhelpfully, middle class consumers have a habit of reinforcing the  stereotype. In his Channel 4 series on British ‘taste tribes’ (specifically the episode on middle class taste), the artist Grayson Perry meets a group of new mums and dads at an NCT toddlers group in Tunbridge Wells, who tell him they seek out organic and green products for their babies. Perry asks what their decision to buy organic and green says about them. “It’s our bling, it’s green bling,” one of them says, without hesitation. In other words “organic and ethical is our label”. 

This is why, at an  Organic Trade Board meeting a few years back, a captive group of organic brand-owners were forced to watch the Farmers’ Market Sketch from the Armstrong and Miller Show (in which middle class chumps flaunt their fabulously overpriced veg over which soil has been freshly sprinkled by stall holders). The point being, that for significant numbers of people, this is their image of organic. 

The ‘categorisation’ of organic/Renouncing complexity 
As the organic movement began to expand in the 1990s, market building became a priority. Supermarkets were now involved, attracted by the rapid growth in organic food sales (by the early 2000s, the sector was also attracting the interest of major food businesses, RHM and Unilever among them). But the major retailers weren’t especially interested in organic values, they saw organic it as a product category, and thus subject to standard category management. The early ‘categorisation’ of organic, a holistic approach to agriculture based on the principles of health, ecology, fairness and care, diminished a large part of its intrinsic value. This is arguably part of a wider challenge: the healthy impulse to mainstream organic, but that which encourages the corporate world to shrink organic ambitions. 

– Too many cooks?/Fragmented sector/Still too much ego in eco/Price culture over food culture 

There are other factors at work too, according to well placed organic industry insiders. They include the argument that the UK organic industry is fragmented and badly needs a single national ‘identity’ or brand (Organic Denmark’s former CEO Paul Holmbeck says that merging the country’s eight organic bodies to create one powerful, unified voice was a pivotal moment on Denmark’s road to becoming world leader organic share). There is also an argument that ‘price culture’ trumps foods culture in the UK, creating a persistent obstacle to understanding true value (let alone concepts like true cost accounting). 

A few quotes (at this point nonattributable) on these themes to close with: 

“It’s incredibly disappointing to realise, that after all this time, work, market building and ambition we’re we’re still a very small sector, and we’re not making anything like the difference we should be.”
Prominent organic sector consultant

“We’ve designed a system to hold it (organic) down. And we’ve been really good at it. We’ve been patting ourselves on the back, catching crumbs on the table, inviting each other for market share when 98% is the market, not the 2% we already occupy”
Organic business manager

“Only 1.6% of the food that’s sold in the UK is organic. I’m sorry, but we can’t cater to the minority. There is a global crisis”
Founder, leading UK organic brand

“It’s just so fragmented, everyone wants to create their own label. There is no room for ego in eco. We should all be prepared to make ourselves a bit smaller for the benefit of everyone”. 
Organic business manager

“We need we need to have the ambition and the vision to lead the market. We have to find a way to get organic to the tipping point where retailers have to take it seriously – which I’d say I around  is around 12%. To get there we’ve got to be growing at a rate of 50% per year. To achieve that, you’d an ambitious national organic plan – ad probably accept that you’re going to be incredibly reliant on imports in the immediate term”. 
Organic business manager

Can we talk about this?
The UK organic sector has an enormous wealth of experience and expertise – and plenty of fresh talent coming into it. It has impressive leadership and powerful advocates and has produced world class brands and businesses with proven longevity. But organic in the UK is not where we want it to be, or where we need it to be. 

How can the UK organic sector break out of its 1.5% trap? Maybe I should have made it clearer at the beginning that I have no intention of attempting to answer that here. In any case, it’s a question for all of us. it’s also the title of a roundtable discussion that we will be holding at Natural Newsdesk in the New Year. If you’d like to take part, or contribute questions or comments please let me know using the feedback page, or the comment box below. 

A short post-script: In December 2021 UK organic organisations welcomed news that the Government’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) specifically recognises the role of organic farming in addressing climate change, soil health and biodiversity.

Latest data on market growth in 2021 suggests UK organic market share is now at 1.7%.

1 Soil Association Organic Market Report 2021

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Jim, Great article, sad though it is. Surely one of the main reasons for sluggish growth is that nitrogen and pesticide inputs are effectively subsidised giving conventional farmers a ‘steroid’-like advantage. Until fair taxes are applied to polluters how can organic truly compete? We need to coordinate for systems change, market change and consumer change.

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