Sunday, 5 April 2009

Draft Article for the Marketer

Why Buy Organic?

This is the question the market seems to have been asking over the last year. My feeling is that it needs to switch from ‘good for you’ (a luxury) to ‘good for the planet’ (a necessity).

According to TNS data for the year to February 2009, organic foods have seen an average decline of 20%. Organic bread has fallen 31%, fruit by 16.5% and vegetables by 10%. According to Ed Garner of TNS "A lot of this boils down to money. Premium food is under pressure and the ones that shout value are doing well. Many organic products are seen as too expensive." It would be interesting to look at the relative price data. The impression you get in the supermarket is that organic food is about the same price as it was last year, but all around it the panicky recession busting offers might be switching customers for no other reason than price. It’s interesting that bread has been hit hardest because this is where supermarkets do tend to hammer price promotions hardest. (There was a point in the 1990s when pig farmers started buying supermarket bread by the trolley load. as it had become the cheapest feed available!)

Most people will be aware that organic certification means growing crops without artificial pesticides, fertilizers or sewage sludge; raising animals fed on organic crops, without routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones; and that organic foods have to be artificial additive and preservative free, and (in the UK) GM free too. The conclusion of all of this – which is focused on food constituents – is that it has become positioned in people’s minds as untainted and hence healthy. The definitive organic category has for several decades been organic baby food, for obvious practical and psychological reasons.

This is actually true to the origins of organic farming. The pioneers of the Soil Association originally set their store out in the post war years behind the health benefits of “compost grown food” as opposed to that from chemical fertilizers. It was only in the 1960s, with “Silent Spring” that the environmental impact of chemical pesticides in particular became the focus of the environmental movement – a horror of poisoning wild creatures and habitats. And from then until the late 1980s when organic produce was the stock in trade of the whole foods store, this ‘green’ benefit was uppermost.

Today it is increasingly apparent that the style of agriculture originally promoted by the organic movement (less industrialized, with minimum off farm inputs) is absolutely critical for climate change. There is recent research showing that fungi in the soil (mychorrhiza) can lock away carbon in the soil for up to 1000 years – a fungi that is killed by chemical fertilisers. Various studies have concluded that healthy soil can be a carbon sink (one Australian study said that restoring the fertility of the world’s soil could absorb similar amounts of carbon as is emitted by transport). And less intensive industrial farming processes overall will be needed, not only because we may well run short of affordable oil, but because according to James Lovelock, fossil fuel used “in growing, gathering, selling and serving food adds up to half of all carbon emissions”.

How would this help organic sales? The evidence is that more people than ever are willing to buy goods that protect the environment. A recent survey commissioned by the Carbon Trust found “62% of consumers saying environmental concerns influence their purchasing decisions ‘the same as a year ago’ and just over a quarter saying they influence them ‘even more’ than in 2008.” The messages about climate change in particular really seem to be sinking in. One result is that recently a Unilever spokesperson reported they were even seeing a shift from taking baths to taking showers. This is the sensibility that organic food might be better pushing; not that it is healthy “for me” in the way a spa retreat might be, but that it is vital (probably more so than renewable energy, based in Lovelock’s figures) in the global effort to combat climate change.

I’ll give the last word to Justin King chief executive of Sainsbury's, reported in the Independent (29.03.09) “customers were increasingly concerned with animal welfare and husbandry standards but organic food producers had not done a good job in communicating what it ‘stood for’.” Perhaps it’s time for organic to say it stands for saving the earth?


John Grant said...

more on agriculture as the neglected part of climate change policy here

do check out the new look grist too - it's as good as ever and nicer to look at/interact with too


John Grant said...

and more food for... er thought for... oh you get the point

Peter Shield said...

John, if you haven't caught it already the Soil Association have just published their Organic Market Report 2009- which, er, cover the 2008 organic market.