As a face-to-face Riverford sales rep normally based at food festivals, shows, markets, and high streets all around the country, in a pre-coronavirus world, I was tasked with talking to the public about sustainable food choices and discussing the relative merits of signing up for a veg box.
We talk to a lot of people, and one lasting observation is the general public’s lack of interest in the organic label.
In general, the number one priority is to reduce plastic consumption. Plastic has become public enemy number one, and it’s reasonably easy to understand why. It induces us with a sharp sense of guilt when we buy something clad with plastic, with its visible effect on marine and land pollution.
Next on the list is food miles. Understandably, people don’t want their produce being flown around the world before it lands in their baskets. Not only is it not as fresh, but also the burden of those carbon emissions only induces yet more guilt.
So why does organic rank so lowly among all of the environmental considerations?
Firstly, I believe that organic has been damaged by a historic 'hippie', or 'faux science' caricature. There is also a perception of the organic movement as an unnecessary luxury and impractical solution for feeding the nation.
There are vested interests in maintaining that image. The worldwide agro-chemical industry is worth 243 billion US dollars, mainly from the sales of fertiliser, pesticides and seeds, upon which the organic method has little dependence. That industry has a lot to lose if organic farming gains traction worldwide.
This attitude can also be seen in some of the coverage of research comparing organic and conventional farming. Published in 2018, a study found that converting the UK’s agriculture to organic would lead to an increase in carbon emissions. The study states that because of the lower yields of organic farming, the UK would have to import much more, which would result in five times more land being used abroad to compensate.
There is no mention of the numerous other environmental benefits from organic farming. These include increased biodiversity of plants, animals, microbes and insects, better soil quality, less water pollution and social benefits such as reduced exposure to hazardous sprays for employees.
With such influential forces in opposition, surely there is an organisation that champions the organic movement’s interests, clearly communicating the environmental benefits and refuting the criticism?
Enter the Soil Association, the UK’s leading organic food and farming charity and organic certification body, whose main objective is to support and grow the organic market.
However, in 2014, four trustees resigned over the Soil Association’s policy choices. Among the many concerns highlighted in their resignation letter are a demise in organic awareness; the avoidance, wherever possible, of the 'O' word in preference to 'nature-friendly' and 'planet-friendly' substitute; and confusing or compromising messages.
They also cited comments from anonymous farmers, growers, consumers and producers talking about the Soil Association’s lack of coherency and influence.
How can we expect the public to pay a premium for organic products when it is unclear what the benefits are?
The organic industry needs to better communicate how it is benefiting our wider society. The most frustrating thing is that organic agriculture provides an astonishing amount of value, whether that is through improved soil health, higher animal welfare, increased biodiversity, lower usage of oil-based pesticides and fertilisers, and not to mention higher nutritional value and better taste.
Should we instead resort to depicting the atrocious crimes being committed against the soil by large-scale conventional farming, in a Blue Planet style TV series?
In any case, we may as well forget about the studies that consider the impacts of 100 per cent organic conversion, as organic agriculture only occupies 2.7 per cent of total land farmed in the UK, and land in conversion to organic has fallen for the first time since 2014.
If this current trajectory continues, there is a real risk of even more ambiguity of what the organic label means to consumers, a worrying trend that we, tasked with selling the benefits of organic on the UK’s high streets, are already noticing.