Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK’s organic food and beverage market has been one of the hardest hit by recession. Sales were worth £1.84bn in 2009, 12.9 per cent less than a year earlier, while the organic market grew in Europe as a whole.
But the Soil Association said there are signs that the UK market will soon return to growth. It is predicting that sales will expand by 2 to 5 per cent this year, and claims that 60 per cent of the UK’s biggest organic businesses have been preparing for growth in 2010.
The baby food category was most strongly resistant to the downturn, with sales rising 20.8 per cent over the year, and organic milk also did well, up one per cent.
Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said: “It has been a tough year for the organic market, but we have seen businesses that are most committed to communicating the many, real benefits of organic food and farming to the public perform best.”
Despite an overall fall in sales, the amount of land used for organic farming grew by nine per cent last year, and now stands at 4.3 percent of the UK’s total agricultural land area. In addition, Melchett said that December’s climate change talks in Copenhagen pushed the environmental impacts of farming up the agenda – a result that he thinks could be beneficial for the organic sector.
“Confidence is now returning, and with the growing recognition of the need for environmentally sustainable production systems that are less reliant on fossil fuels, we are confident that the organic market, having weathered the recession, will return to growth,” he said.
The Soil Association also pointed out that sales of organic food were still over 50 per cent higher than they were five years ago. Dairy products are the best-selling category for organics, accounting for 33 per cent of sales last year, followed by fresh produce, at 26 percent.
While UK organic sales shrank during 2009, other European countries saw growth in the sector. Consultancy and research firm Organic Monitor estimated that overall growth in Europe was between 2 and 6 per cent. This is a drop from the double-digit growth rates of previous years but it is still unusually strong for a premium priced category.