More talk needed on organic benefits, says Soil Association

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Soil association Organic food

The Soil Association has called for broader communication of organic issues, saying that consumers are bewildered by so many ethical options and many are unaware of its wider benefits.

The comment is part of the organisation’s new report on the state of the UK organic market. Despite dire predictions for the sector due to global recession, it said that organic sales grew by 1.7 per cent in 2008, as consumers turn to cheaper organics rather than conventionally grown produce.

However, the Soil Association’s policy director Peter Melchett said: “It is clear from this report that much more work needs to be done to communicate the wider benefits of organic production to the public, especially in relation to health, animal welfare, climate change and the environment.”

Interest in ‘single issues’

He added that the economic downturn has seen increased consumer interest in ‘single issue’ alternatives such as free-range, local, pesticide-free, fair trade, seasonal and natural foods.

“Consumers have plenty of different ethical options – so many, in fact, that the choice can be bewildering,”​ he said.

The Soil Association is the UK’s leading organic certification body, but it is also an environmental charity that also champions environmental sustainability and human health issues in relation to food, and Melchett said that this message needs to come across more strongly.

“To cut through the confusion the organic movement needs to demonstrate more forcefully than ever that organic principles encompass all these single issues and deliver a set of interlocking benefits that can and will still motivate consumers,”​ he said.

The organisation also said that it hopes supermarkets will increase their advertising of organics, as spend on the sector has diminished from a peak in 2006, according to analyst Mintel.

Stephen Grey, technical manager for organic produce at UK supermarket chain Asda, echoed these concerns, saying that educating the public is still a weaker aspect of the organic movement.

He said: “For too many shoppers ‘organic’ means merely ‘pesticide free’. This may pose problems now that some non-organic fresh produce is being explicitly and successfully marketed as pesticide free. If the organic movement is not careful, and if it does not improve its communication of all the benefits of eating organic, sales of organic produce could suffer.”

The air freight debate

He also referred to the recent debate over whether or not air freighted food should be allowed to carry the Soil Association’s certified organic mark, saying that advocates of organic food need to reflect carefully on how these debates are conducted.

The organisation initially proposed that air freighted produce should not be certified as organic unless it also met ethical and fair trade standards, but backed down after a two-part consultation with stakeholders. This led it to conclude that the ban could quash potential benefits of air freighted organics for alleviating poverty in developing countries.

Grey said: “These issues will not go away, and they need to be debated and resolved. But we need to be wary of such debates restricting the marketing and promotion of organic food to the mainstream masses.”

The UK organic market is valued at ₤2.1bn (approximately €2.3bn at today’s rates). Growth in the first nine months of the year, followed by a downturn in Q4 2008, means that overall growth is in the black, although the Soil Association reported that sales are expected to be “level at best”​ during 2009.

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