The Future is Organic

The Future is Organic

It’s organic fortnight once again – cover yourself in organic moisturiser, put on your organic jeans and enjoy some lovely organic grub. Hey, you could even get organic milk in your McDonald’s coffee. If you drink it, that is. But hang on. The world of organics isn’t as rosy as a just-picked Pink Lady apple at the moment.

For a start, stocks are running low as shops and suppliers are having trouble keeping up with our hunger. More topically, there’s been the wrangling over whether air freighted organic food should be stripped of its organic status and the discoveries of non-organic foods being labelled as organic have also been a cause for concern.

Not that we want to be negative. It’s still fantastic to see organic ranges of our favourite foods on the rise and new goodies available too. And box schemes and organic markets are enjoying booming business.

There’s also been the opening, albeit controversially – of Wholefoods in London – stocking the biggest range of organic goods the UK has seen. There seems to be a mixed picture and it all sings of an industry still finding its feet. So how does the future look?

Firstly, discoveries of battery farm eggs being sold as organic and other cases, such as a restaurant in West London being fined for falsely selling meat as organic, have dented consumers’ confidence in the food.

Increasing demand for organic food

Hardened organic fans will still give foods the benefit of the doubt in most cases, but the Soil Association, our main organic certification body, is determined to ensure the public doesn’t jump ship. It has set up the Organic Trade Group, which has 12 representatives from organic companies in the UK, to be a collective voice for the Association’s 4,500 members.

Helen Taylor, marketing director for the Association says the group will provide a voice “to help grow the organic market, to communicate the benefits of organic production and advance organic standards, whilst ensuring the public’s trust in organic products is maintained.”

But while the organic industry is helping to grow the market and consumers’ trust, there is also an issue with meeting the demands of that market. Supermarket ranges of organic foods are fairly limited to start with and sometimes they seem to be ‘sold out’ of items.

Tina Gill, researcher at Organic Monitor, which studies the industry and predicts trends, says that, along with the cost for farmers (about 30% extra to rear an organic pig), there are a variety of other reasons for the shortage. “It’s happening for a number of reasons. Firstly, of course, is because there are a lot more people buying these foods. The other issue is the extreme weather and the effect it’s having on growing conditions.”

She also sees an interesting trend currently gathering pace in the US and believes that potentially it might work its way over to Europe. “Farmers are realising that they can get more for their organic crops if they sell them to bio-fuel producers,” says Gill.

The air freight debate

The availability of organic food may further decrease if green campaigners have their way and succeed in getting air-freighted food stripped of its organic status. In the UK, about a third of the £1.6bn worth of organic food sold is from outside the UK. As well as Africa, China and India are now big suppliers. We take stocks of soy beans, rice, grains, beans and seeds from China and from India, we get organic tea, honey, spices and rice.

The Soil Association standards board will soon decide once and for all what they should do about air freight based on discussion and consultation with the public. The Association does point out that less than 1% of all food miles are generated by flown-in food and that only a small portion of that is organic. As well as this, it says that many organic box schemes ban air freight all together.

Lots of us of will choose UK apples over ones brought in from New Zealand, but would we necessarily agree that air freighted organic food should be stripped of its status? “Air freighting is clearly an area for concern,” comments Hayley Jones, of the UK Energy Saving Trust.

“But this should not be a reason to strip produce of its organic status. Consumers are already making the choice about whether to eat organic food and labeling of all food would give them the further choice over whether to buy air freighted produce or not”.

Dr Alexander Kasterine, of the UN agency the International Trade Centre adds weight to the argument in favour of allowing air freighted foods, at least from some countries, to retain their status.

He explains that African farmers use manual labour, rather than energy intensive machinery, so carbon emissions are saved in that sense. He believes that this makes the food equally as environmentally-friendly as organic food from British farmers.

Tina Gill at Organic Monitor believes changing the status of organic air freighted food could have a deep effect on organic farmers overseas. “Carbon emissions and air freighting are a big issue for organic food but ethical living is also about sustainability and supporting poor people.

Many farms in Africa are in the process of becoming organic and now they may find themselves not certified organic. Farmers may just decide to work towards fairtrade certification instead of risking being stripped of their organic status. We should look at the wider picture here. The UK is the only country that is thinking of not certifying air freight food as organic.

Cottoning on

So, aside from that, what else does Organic Monitor predict? The rise and rise of organic cotton sales, for a start. We’ve already seen some of the supermarkets, and many high street shops bringing in organic clothing ranges.

In other areas we are now being encouraged to pressure sports centres and hospitals into selling healthier and organic foods, after a survey by kids’ food company Organix confirmed that these institutions are often full of junk food through cafés and vending machines.

Hidden ingredients

And, at the time of writing, the RSPCA has launched a new drive to encourage people who buy organic and free range eggs, to start avoiding food which has battery farm eggs as an ingredient. In its latest booklet the Society says that 37% of eggs produced in the UK are laid by hens kept in free-range or barn systems.

But only about 15% of eggs used as ingredients, in food products such as sandwich fillings, quiches and cakes, are still laid by non-caged hens. The new booklet, called ‘Eggs  in food products – be a free-ranger!’, makes it easy for consumers to find foods like quiche, mayonnaise and ice cream which don’t contain cage eggs.

RSPCA campaigner Chloe Alexander says: “Much of this food (ice cream, mayonnaise etc) doesn’t say what type of eggs are used, but most are laid by hens in battery cages. If all the people who insist on higher welfare eggs also insist that the ready-made food they buy only contains higher welfare eggs, we could free millions more hens from battery cages.”