The organic food industry thrives in the UK but faces challenges ahead

Increasing demand and online shopping of organic food can mean an opportunity for British farmers to become more resilient ahead of Brexit.

Fresh ginger steaming up an all-organic vegetable curry; saffron complementing the taste of handpicked shellfish in a Spanish-style paella; grilled onions mixed with free-range lamb hamburgers and freshly made bread. The smells surrounding London Bridge Farmers’ Market welcome passersby to join the feast of ready-made, all-organic meals once a week during lunchtime.

London Bridge Farmers’ Market comes to life on Tuesdays at the Memorial Arch Square in King’s College Guys Campus

Maybe a bit more expensive than a meal in a regular fast-food restaurant, but “free of pesticides and hormones”, says 25-year-old Tarisai Tsaga, sharing her fresh pasta with a friend. Sitting at the bench beside them, 38-year-old Gilly Menuhin eats an organic lamb hamburger while rocking her daughter’s stroller to induce her sleep after she finished a bottle of organic formula.

The rise of consumer health and environmental awareness has led the organic food industry to grow for seven years in a row in the UK, making it worth over £2.3bn in 2018, a 5.3% growth since 2017, says a report by the certification agency Soil Association. Although the expansion was mainly driven by the surge of small processors and veg-box delivery businesses, experts think the change in consumer behaviour could help British farmers to become more resilient ahead of a challenging Brexit scenario.  

“Conventional food production creates an environmental footprint so organic food isn’t just healthier for your body, but good for the environment too,” says Gilly Menhuin. She and her two-year-old daughter, Sarah, came all the way from Bermondsey to buy organic beef, the only kind of red meat their family consumes once a week. “Sarah only has organic formula and organic vegetables”.

The Menhuins are a part of a growing number of people who “want to do the right thing and are making decisions about food choices on the basis of their wider impact on the environment, society and health of animals and people”, says Finn Cottle, Trade consultant at Soil Association.

Pick’s Organic Farm produces organic beef and lamb in Leicester

“People in these city areas seem to be generally interested. Some of them don’t want anything else but organic, and that is why we come from miles away to sell here”, says fifty-five-year-old Paul Dyer, the owner of the Leicester-based Pick’s Organic Farm. Dyer has a food stand in several farmers’ markets around London and he comes to the city three days every week to sell his certified organic products. “It’s all about traceability. The soil and products are tested; there are no pesticides in any of the land or the food. It’s really natural as it used to be years ago, really”.

“Organic is the highest quality standard by which food can be produced. It’s something people can trust,“ says Steven Jacobs, Business Development Manager at Organic Farmers & Growers, a certification agency based in Shrewsbury.

OF&G was the first certification agency in the UK to comply with the 2007 European legislation meant to encourage organic food production. Consumers were instantly attracted by the new variety of products but a couple of years later, “the economic recession made some of the sales dip”, says Jacobs.

It was after 2013 -when horsemeat was found to be sold as regular beef in the shape of hamburgers in supermarkets across Europe- that “people lost trust in their food providers,” says Jacobs, “since then, the organic sector hasn’t stopped growing”.

Groceries brands such as Tesco or Lidl are offering organic alternatives to fight consumer mistrust after the horsemeat scandal in 2013, says Steven Jacobs from OF&G

“There is an increasing amount of smaller processors,” says Stuart Cragg, certification manager at the Biodynamic Certification  Association. Obtaining the licence as a processor can take no longer than three months, which, together with online schemes has driven most of the industry’s growth.

“Online shopping is offering organic the opportunity to be more widely available to a much wider audience,” agrees Cottle from the Soil Association Certification, ”people can shop a full range online either through an operator such as Ocado or a box scheme such as Riverford or Abel & Cole”.

Other smaller businesses have also flourished as a result of new shopping habits. Forty Hall Farm provides 120 people around Enfield with organic vegetable boxes, 70% of which are produced by volunteers in their farm.

“Most of the vegetables you get from us have been harvested within the last 24 hours,” says Angelika Houses, farm manager at Forty Hall Farm, “We use plastic bags that are compostable and we try and have as little waste as possible.”

It has been more challenging for farmers to adapt to the growing demand for organic food. The certification process can last over two years, the time needed to eliminate the trace of fertilizers an herbicides from the land. Breeding cattle by this system can also add some extra costs.

“When it comes to meat and animals, organic production is three times more expensive than conventional foods,” says the Leicester farmer, Paul Dyer. The first year after being certified, businesses that want to display the organic logo are charged a flat fee, but after that, they pay a levy on sales.

“Very few farmers in Britain are making a profit without some kind of subsidize from the Government,” says Steven Jacobs from OF&G, but organic farming is a good way to increase profit when producing vegetables since it means “lower input costs of herbicides, pesticides or man-made fertilizers, some of the most expensive supplies in conventional farming.”

Maintaining certification standards can also be time-consuming. “It’s a nightmare with all the paperwork,” says Dyer, “everything we sell has to be continuously tested. [The control body] usually just picks a random date and we have to show all the records of what we sold and what we bought in. We go through it because we believe in it.”

“The farmers and a few businesses are very concerned about Brexit,” says Steven Jacobs from OF&G. The British exit of the European Union comes to add to a challenging scenario posed by climate change – or extremely dry temperatures during the summer that reduce production- and the threat of a large volume of imported fresh foods. “They are already cutting profits,” he says.

“The UK Government are not supporting the organic sector in the same way as many other European countries such as France and Denmark, where there are clear government backed Organic Action Plans,” says Cottle from the Soil Association, “we need [them] to see the importance of a thriving organic sector within the overall agricultural industry”.

For Gilly Menhuin and other environmentally aware consumers, organic food comes as a long-term investment: “We want our baby girl to have a healthier environment when she grows up”.

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