Sales of organic products rose by 12.6 per cent during 2020 but the growth in consumer demand is likely to be met by imports as farmers hesitate to convert to organic, according to a new report.
The Organic Market Report, produced by the Soil Association, the UK’s largest certifier of organic food, showed a tenth consecutive year of growth in organic sales and the highest growth rate in 15 years.
Despite the growth, organic food and drink accounts for only 1.3 cent of the total market in the UK, according to research agency Kantar. While the amount of land farmed organically rose slightly by 2.4 per cent in 2019, the land in conversion to organic fell by 14.7 per cent, according to Defra statistics.
Chief executive of the Soil Association charity, Helen Browning, said surging sales should attract interest from farmers but said the opaque future of farming subsidies is putting people off. “There’s little detail for UK farm businesses to plan against. Many farmers will be watching and waiting before deciding the shape of their future businesses,” she said, in a foreword to the report.
“So, while there is a small rise in farmers converting to organic, sadly much of the future growth in the overall market will be met by imports, especially in the arable sector.”
Post-Brexit, the UK has committed to paying farmers for environmental benefits to replace land area subsidies, but little detail has been released and it is not yet clear if organic farmers will be directly rewarded. Scottish farmers are faring a little better under a new Agri-Environment Climate Scheme launched last month to promote land practices that protect the environment and support organic farming.
Browning also highlighted how organic is a ‘hero brand’ in food and drink, as a “well proven way to tackle environmental challenges”. “Government is missing a trick by not backing UK organic sufficiently. Organic is seen now as a practical way to support human and planetary health,” she said.
Simon Crichton, food and farming lending lead at Triodos Bank, said: “2020 saw a fantastic boom for the organic market, but it’s important that as a sector we continue to push the transition from the current production-focused system towards one that is ecologically and socially resilient.
“2021 will be a pivotal year for building a greener future, and as a community of organic producers, growers and supporters, we need to continue to stand up for the long-term benefit that our approach has for society and the planet.”
Unsurprisingly due to the many lockdowns, online and home delivery sales fuelled much of the growth in organic in 2020, with sales increasing by 36.2 per cent. Home delivery now accounts for almost 25 per cent of the total sales in organic (supermarket online sales included), with almost one in four organic products purchased online in 2020.
Managing director of organic veg box company, Riverford, Rob Haward, said: “Riverford was already experiencing strong growth early in 2020, before Covid, driven by a desire for more organic and plant-based eating.
“Our growth this year had predominantly been driven by existing customers buying more frequently. As the lockdown pressures ease, I expect the health, ethics and environment drivers that were strong before the pandemic to return even stronger and fuel future growth.”
Sales of organic items in main store supermarkets increased by 12.5 per cent, while sales through independents remained flat as citizens moved away from indies on the high street but increased visits to community or local outlets.
“The unprecedented crisis of 2020 has brought immense challenges across the entire food supply chain – not least for organic businesses. So, it’s significant that in times of crisis, people are turning to organic products for the assurance of transparency, integrity and quality they provide,” said trade consultant to the Soil Association, Finn Cottle.