While the past few years have been a set-back in terms of sales, the organic sector overall has surpassed early expectations. From next to nothing in the early 1990s, total organic sales in the UK were worth £1.7 billion in 2010.
It may only represent 1 or 2 per cent of total food sales and 4 per cent of farmland but that's still a large chunk of land in the UK being organically managed.
A major government-funded study in 2005 found organic farms have, on average, higher levels of wildlife than conventional farms - an impressive 80 per cent more species with, for example, larger hedges full of berry-producing shrubs attracting birds and bats.
Despite the success, the organic movement, somewhat surprisingly, faces a dilemma.
It's success in terms of sales has largely come through supermarkets - the very same centralised, industrialised food system the organic movement wanted to overthrow.
And linked in some ways to this point, there is also a continuing gap between consumer understanding of what organic means and what it actually is all about.
As the demand for organics grew in the late 1990s and early 2000s, supermarkets identified organic food as a premium-priced, highly-profitable market and were quick to jump on the bandwagon.
Supermarkets now dominate the organic market, with 72 per cent of total sales. Sales through box schemes and independent stores make up the other 28 per cent.
A recent report by the campaign group Corporate Watch says this supermarket dominance has come at a cost.
It says the ideals of the organic pioneers 'back to landers' seem to have disappeared in the corporate-organic landscape. Organic was meant to challenge the industrial food system but has since been gradually taken over and watered down by it, for example Rachel's (it recently dropped the 'organic' part of its name) is now owned by the French dairy giant Lactalis.
Even where the producer is not corporate-owned and has managed to retain its independence, the produce still travels through the same conventional production and distribution chains. This means the same people always benefit, says Corporate Watch. And it is not the farmers, but the corporations, which cream off the profit.
As supermarkets have come to dominate the organic sector so they have been able to control prices, quality standards and contract terms with their suppliers. Ironically, organic producers supplying supermarkets are now suffering the same as their conventional counterparts.
'What has happened has proved the ease with which threats can be absorbed into the corporate hegemony. Through processes, such as corporate acquisition of organic companies and the mass selling of 'organic' label goods through conventional, corporate-controlled avenues, organic has proved to be a lucrative endeavour for big business – which in turn has changed the very meaning of the term,' says the report.
Writing in the Ecologist last year, early organic pioneer Sir Julian Rose talked of an industry increasingly characterised by high food miles and highly processed produce.
‘Much of the ‘organic’ produce shipped in from around the world and across the UK today carries no sense of connection with its geography or its farmers. It is as anonymous as the majority of conventional chemically produced foods, as dull in flavour and as lacking in nutritional vitality. What’s more it belongs in the category of ‘high food miles’ heavy ecological footprint produce, exceeding the 3,000 kilometre average shopping basket once identified as the UK norm. Due to the need to carry a lot of information, it is also responsible for an excessive level of packaging – most of which is non biodegradeable.’
'Industrial organics' in the US
The situation in the US is even more worrying. While most UK organic food comes from small producers, in the US the story is very different. The large-scale organic farms in the major food-growing state of California bear a striking resemblance to the conventional industrial agriculture systems.
The consolidation and scale in the sector is such that just five farms control 50 per cent of the $400 million market for organic fruit and vegetables in California.
What's more, deeply ingrained principles in the organic movement such as diversity of crops are being lost, with US organic producers allowed to grow thousands of hectares of the same crop, creating the same monoculture landscape many pioneers wanted to fight against.
Professor Nic Lampkin, director of the Organic Research Centre says corporate ownership in the UK does not necessarily mean a loss of organic values, he says Rachel's still maintains a strong commitment to organic farming and buys all its milk from the Calon Wen dairy co-operative in Wales.
He admits there is 'tension' between corporate organics and what he calls 'principled organics' but that the supermarkets are a long way from taking over the organic movement as a whole.
Dr Margi Lennartsson from the charity Garden Organics agrees. 'We are in a system that is full of big corporate players and it would not have been possible for the organic sector to create what it has done on the ground by staying out of this distribution system,' she says. 'But on the ground I don't think farmers and growers have forgotten what the principles are.'
The dreams of the early organic pioneers may have been subsumed into a rush for global supply chains, strict regulations and fast-selling brands - but the alternative would have been something far more elitist and ultimately, less influential.
'Just retreating and doing something perfect in isolation is no good,' explains Soil Association director Helen Browning. 'If we banned companies of certain sizes (which, we couldn't do anyway) we would restrict many people's chance of getting involved.
'We mustn't be seen as holier than thou. We must make ourselves more accessible and touch as many lives as possible.'
Consumer focus on health claims
The corporate takeover of organics has also seen a push on it as a premium health option. For many consumers, says the report, organic has become a more expensive option justified for the sake of a 'purer' vegetable or piece of meat, untouched by pesticides or antibiotics.
'Marketing tactics have talked up the health benefits of organic food to tap into the large healthy eating market. Advertising played on aspiration and quality in order to induce customers to part with their hard-earned cash in a way that helped turn organic into the antithesis of its original goal: an elitist consumer choice.'
The most recent market report from the Soil Association confirmed this trend with, 'fewer chemicals', 'healthier' and 'natural/unprocessed', making up the top three reasons people give for buying organic products.
Consumers may buy organic produce without ever taking onboard the wider issues the organic movement cares about.
In the long run this could do real damage to the kind of ideals the organic movement is trying to instill. Work by the campaign groups WWF and Oxfam has found that playing to ‘extrinsic’ anxieties about health, security and status – standard practice for much corporate marketing – discourages socially and environmentally responsible behaviour, even if it persuades people to buy ‘greener’ products in the short-term.
But the original principles of organic farming are about far more than just healthy food.
'The criteria for a sustainable agriculture can be summed up in one word - permanence, which means adopting techniques that maintain soil fertility indefinitely; that utilise, as far as possible, only renewable resources; that do not grossly pollute the environment; and that foster life energy (or if preferred biological activity) within the soil and throughout the cycles of all the involved food-chains.' Lady Eve Balfour, Soil Association founder
What's more, unlike the benefits to the environment and wildlife, the health claims do not as yet have the wider scientific acceptance.
Organic groups are quick to acknowledge this gap in consumer understanding of organic principles - but say it is too complex a message to put over in simple marketing terms.
'Organic is perhaps handicapped by the all-embracing nature of what it offers,' says Bob Kennard, of Graig Producers, an organic meat co-operative. 'This is why “single-benefit” brands, such as “Healthy”, “Fair Trade” and “Local” seem to sell well, whereas organic, which may well be as good or even better in these particular attributes than the single-message ranges, may appear to have too complex a message.'
The fruit juice brand RDA Organic is one such brand focusing on a single ‘natural’ message. Its director Patrick O'Flaherty admits most consumers may not be buying its drinks as an organic product. ‘A lot of companies hang their hat on different health claims and try to use the words ‘natural’ but with our organic principles and certification we are at least sincere about our claims,’ he says.
Helen Browning says trust is what the organic movement needs to safeguard over and above meeting the marketing demands of supermarkets.
'The simplification we can provide is to ensure that we deliver the trust the public deserves. So that people know that when they come to us they know the right ethical choices are being made, whether their primary interest or concern is in pesticides, GM, feeding the world or animal welfare,' she says.
Beyond the supermarket shelves
Corporate Watch’s report calls on the organic movement to reject supermarkets and capitalist agribusiness and refocus on supporting direct and decentralised food systems.
This is perhaps, unlikely in the short-term. Most of the organic groups the Ecologist spoke to argue that supermarkets cannot be ignored because of their ability to bring awareness of organic to people, particularly in urban areas, who might otherwise never come across it. Likewise, not allowing processed organic foods would leave the sector as a tiny niche that just a minor few would be aware existed.
A recently launched campaign, 'Why I Love Organic', attempts to embrace the multiple reasons people have for buying organic - moving away from the 'preachy' tone of earlier attempts to promote organic produce. It simplifies the message but, for its supporters, it is an acceptance of the need to create loyalty amongst consumers. Consumers who may have little allegiance to ideals of protecting soils and diversity.
There is however, an acceptance that supermarkets and branded produce are not the best way to spread the ideals of the organic movement beyond the shop shelves.
'We should look at people as more than just consumers,' says Dr Lennartsson, from Garden Organics. 'The best learning ground for connecting people with the land and food production is through active engagement and that means gardening.
'That way it is not just about reading labels in the supermarket but about making decision yourself in the garden,' she adds.
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