Why is organic last on the list?

The fact organic is behind food miles and plastic when it comes to ethical concerns is a worrying trend for the future of the sector, writes Riverford sales rep Jack Thompson.

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.

Organic label
View from the streets: Organic is not a top ethical concern.

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.


Leave a Reply

  1. Fascinating article. This is articulate and laced with some hard hitting truths. As the author implies, perhaps the organic movement needs to open itself up to self-reflection and criticism in order to instigate the sort of impactful change many of us would like to see?

  2. This is a motivating piece of writing, thank you.

    There are a number of bodies who are promoting organic strongly and with the Soil Association they are a part of the English Organic Forum. Members include the Soil Association, Organic Farmers and Growers, The Organic Growers Alliance and the Organic Trade Board.

    And we have the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) who do a lot of brilliant work around the world.

    And here is the European group within IFOAM who do a huge amount for all european organic groups –

    The Cranfield research you mention in your article, as you correctly state, is deeply flawed.
    There are far more thorough and more useful papers to read.
    For reference I’ll cite three papers I urge people to have a look at. You may have already seen them.

    This first one is from FiBL, the Swiss/German organic institute;

    Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture –

    They describe the need to address behavioural patterns that are causing ill-health through dietary habit and food waste that is literally costing us the earth.

    And a more recent paper carries this clear statement –

    Food production is one of the largest drivers of global environmental change and thus a major cause of exceeding planetary boundaries.
    Transformative redesign of agri-food systems based on agroecological principles is urgently needed, but it requires appropriate assessment tools and methods to examine the environmental performance of these systems.
    Currently, LCA misrepresents agroecological systems such as organic agriculture, partly because its product-based approach focuses by default on the output of provisioning services from agricultural systems, and partly because key aspects of sustainable agriculture (better soil health, lower biodiversity impacts and lower pesticide-use impacts) are largely ignored.

    Here’s a link to an article about the paper, the link to the paper itself is at the end of the article –

    Finally, at Organic Farmers and Growers we published a paper on productivity and efficiency in which we describe how organic production contributes to a positive balance sheet.
    From the paper –
    Farming should be seen within the context of the fixed and variable assets which we aim to enhance or conserve and the liabilities we seek to mitigate. This whole system/balance sheet thinking helps to address the inherent deficiency of simple economic measures by bringing all three elements
    of sustainability (economic, social and environmental) more effectively together. Organic producers already use this thinking.


    I hope this information is of some interest.

    Again, thank you for a timely and thoughtful article.

    1. Good to see the thinking behind this reply Steven – it’s a bit of a Pandora’s box (pun not intended)

      We in Australia have 8 organic certifiers so we have an even bigger issue with consistant messaging. So far none of the major cerifiers have even bothered to look at food miles or packaging or even soil carbon as a measure. This makes multi-farmer CSA’s and box systems come up with their own marketing to take the conversation to a deeper more nuanced level.

      The papers you cited are a good example of the richer and more practical ways the organic ‘movement’ (as opposed to ‘industry’) can increase market share whilst regenerating the economy

    2. Thanks, Robert.
      Yes, exactly as you say, its critical we account for externalities, and that we talk about this more. The productivity and efficiency angle is focused on volume and has little respect to welfare of farmers nor of society. Organic is a verified system approach which is superb.

      But we must take steps to bring more people into the conversation. And that will require us moving beyond our own bubbles, as it were.

      Organic is, my opinion, the best way to practice agroecology, but we now must look across societal challenges. In so-called developed countries food prices fell dramatically since the 1960s and at the same time utilities and housing costs have rocketed. The money has gone somewhere. And it is not into farmers’ pockets.

    3. Hi Steven and Robert,

      Thank you both for your thoughtful comments and for the links. I personally found the “strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture’ a particularly insightful read. Their findings prove that a combined reduction in food waste and food competing system and an increase in organic production can not only achieve a realistic objective of feeding the worlds ever increasing population but also mitigate the damaging effects of climate change on agriculture. In these times that is a promising thought.

      But why do you think these studies remain to a large extent unreported to the mainstream media while, the LCA report garners attention from the likes of The Independent, BBC, and The Daily Mail?

    4. Steven are there any good articles / average metrics for improvements in soil carbon. People are slowly waking up the this opportunity And it could be an effective tool to communicate to the masses with. Also if there was a standardised metric that could reward farmers for consistent soil improvements or just keeping soil at a good level of health then that could help reduce the purchase price of food to the consumer

    5. Thanks for sharing those really helpful resources Steven and glad that the article is is good springboard for discussing these vital questions.

  3. I think another issue is the cost of organic food. It’s seen as a middle class fad and so does not cut through to the majority who want cheaper products.

    1. Hi Jennifer, cost is something that goes beyond simply the price you see on the retailer’s shelves. There are costs that are referred to as production externalities meaning on-farm biological diversity such as birds and invertebrates, and soil carbon which reduces negative impacts on climate, and not using artificial inputs such as herbicides and pesticides which enhance the natural systems the farmer is working within.

      All these things help the environment we all depend upon but these are often costly in terms of the amount of volume of a crop that can be grown.

      However, sometimes the premium that you see as higher prices of organic are not all being passed back down the line to the farmers. Some retail categories can price according to what the market will bare, in other words what you are, or are not, prepared to pay.

      Then we have social and health costs. With two thirds of UK adults overweight or obese the costs to the NHS are escalating. Dietary choices and farming practices are inextricably linked. But the links are costed across our society, and not always reflected in the price of what some refer to as cheap food.

      Its complex, but I don’t think its complicated and I believe we can solve the puzzle. But it won’t be one group alone that can do that. It will be a collaborative effort across society.

    2. This holistic view of public and environmental wellbeing as inseparable is one that big agribusiness is desperate to obscure. When food is seen as just an economic commodity rather than the literal building blocks for health, something is very wrong with the current system.

    3. I agree Jennifer the price is prohibitive for most.

      Steven agree with all you factors you mention, that nuance is difficult to communicate to people who can only afford to look at Purchase price

  4. Great article Jack

    We (at Food Connect in Aus) were only taking about this last week as we are about to do a deep dive survey of our ‘new’ customer base created through the Covid ‘crisis’. I’m looking forward to what comes out of it as my reply to Stevens comments illustrate.

  5. I was greatly saddened when The Henry Doubleday Association changed their name and started to run down their centre at Ryton, ending with selling it off to Coventry University. Back in the day they did so much to promote Organic production and growing and carrying out research, now largely gone. They even had a TV series called ‘All Muck and Magic’. As this article says, the promotion of Organic production has not been helped by the Soil Association’s recent history either. The truth of this matter is that people want cheap food; many can’t afford premium prices; want fruit and veg out of season. What is needed is a big change in society in general. Sadly I don’t see that happening any time soon.

  6. Fascinating and well researched article revealing the cynical side of farming and agriculture. Sad to hear that the depiction of ‘damaging’ and ‘hippie’ organic farmers is motivated by the powerful pesticide lobby groups. An eye opening read, thank you Jack Thompson, I hope to read more by you in the future


In case you missed it

Receive the Digital Digest

Food, Farming, Fairness, every Friday.

Learn more

About us

Find out more about Wicked Leeks and our publisher, organic veg box company Riverford.

Learn more