The current economic climate is certainly the toughest that the organic movement has faced for 20 years, in what some are calling the worst depression for a century. In common with much of the rest of the economy, trading conditions have been very difficult for many organic businesses. However, despite the near 13% decline in organic sales, organic milk and baby food resisted the downward trend – their sales increased by 1% and 20.8% respectively. Sales of organic health and beauty products continued their rapid growth, increasing by a third to £36 million. The area of organic farmland increased by 9% on the previous year, up to 4.3% of agricultural land.
The three biggest categories of organic food in terms of retail sales value – dairy, produce and fresh meat – saw their sales fall by 5.5%, 14.8% and 22.7% respectively in 2009.
On average consumers bought organic products 16 times during the year, compared to 18 times in 2008. When they did so they typically spent 2.9% less on organic products per shopping trip. This pattern of shopping less frequently and spending less on each occasion shows organic consumers being hit by the recession and tightening their belts – just like everyone else. For some this has meant choosing cheaper cuts of organic meat, or canned and frozen alternatives that help avoid waste. Sales of organic fresh fish fell by 46% in 2009, for example, while sales of organic frozen fish more than trebled. Organic products continue to attract shoppers from across the social spectrum. Those in the C2, D and E social groups – which cover manual and casual workers, pensioners, students and people on benefits – accounted for 33% of spend in 2009. Consumers on higher incomes – those from the A, B and C1 socio-economic groups – were responsible for 67% of spending.
UK needs significantly to increase the proportion of organic food served in schools, hospitals and throughout the public sector. This country needs an agricultural equivalent of the car scrappage scheme that offers enhanced incentives through agri-environment funding for farmers who swap polluting old farming techniques for practices that maximise soil carbon storage. By the other hand they must increase research and development funding to support sustainable farming practices from 11% to 50% or more of the UK’s agriculture research budget. For its part the organic movement needs to strengthen its collective effort to communicate all the benefits of organic food and farming to the public. Finally they need to rekindle the kind of consumer demand that it will ultimately be impossible for policy makers, and retailers, to ignore.