Monday, August 24, 2009

Organics: it all kicks off

We haven't yet looked at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) report earlier this month that stated that 50 years of evidence on nutrition and health effects found that there was little difference in the nutritional value of orgainic produce. The small nutritional differences which did occur were not large enough to be of any public health relevance.

This is not a message organic farmers and growers wanted to hear at a time when sales have been slumping in the recession. According to research by the Institute of Grocery Distribution earlier this year, the number of people buying organic produce dropped from almost a quarter to 19 per cent. Prince Charles' organic food range, Duchy Originals, has seen a dramatic slump in sales. Profits fell from £1.53m in 2007 to £57,400 last year.

Organic goods were coming to be seen as a luxury in the recession as consumers search for value. Admittedly, there have been some signs of a recent recovery. Last month Tesco said that the sector was seeing 'green shoots of recovery'. Organic milk buyer OMSCo reported earlier this month that sales of organic milk had increased by 10.5 per cent in four weeks.

In any case the FSA report misses the point about why consumers buy organic. It was evident from vox pops after the report came out that the main concern for many of them was pesticide residues rather than nutrition. There is little point in telling them that pesticide residues are minimal or that they are strictly monitored both by the regulator and by supermarkets who don't want any damage to their brands.

Unfortunately the debate has become pivoted around an artificial divide between organic and conventional methods of farming when more attention should be paid to how conventional farming can be made less intensive and environmentally damaging through integrated crop and pest management. It is evident, however, that the position of many organic proponents is deeply ideological in the sense that they hold entrenched positions that dismiss any contrary arguments or evidence.

There is a sense in which 'organic' has become a diluted brand that is confusing to customers. In many ways it is 'local' that is the acclerating brand, particularly through the farmers' market movement. In supermarkets 'local' is sometimes really 'regional'. The big boom in the last year, as many garden centres could attest, has been in the 'grow your own' movement in allotments and gardens.

As was pointed out at the ESRS conference in Vaasa last week the notion of locality is linked to a narrative of producers' pride but also links into the willingness of consumers to pay more as part of a search for excellence. Wealthy and concerned consumers provide a basis for the protection of European agriculture not through traditional market barriers but by reinventing old forms of quality and developing new ones.

For retailers there is an imperative to strengthen consumer loyalty through an appeal to ethical and moral values as well as competition on price. This, of course, brings us into the debate about 'choice editing' as a means of dealing with problems such as obesity. But that is another story.


Alex said...

Nice post, though I do slightly disagree with one point:

"In any case the FSA report misses the point about why consumers buy organic. It was evident from vox pops after the report came out that the main concern for many of them was pesticide residues rather than nutrition."

I agree that pesticide residue is probably the main reason people buy organic, but there are other reasons that people buy organic, such as animal welfare (for those unaware of the RSPCA food labels), environmental benefits (for those unaware of the impact of some organic produce on climate change), localism (for those unaware of organic produce shipped from Kenya etc), and nutrition.

For some, nutrition is one of the reasons they buy organic. And it is obviously an important reason for some, else why did the Soil Association's press release in reply to the FSA report essentially attack the FSA with a "Organic is too more nutritious" rebuttal full of cherry picking of statistically insignificant (but larger) numbers for nutrition content?

And to say that the "FSA report misses the point", is silly. They went about commissioning a study into answering a reasonably important scientific question using the best studies available. The FSA could not have asked for research into the other reasons people buy organic, as those are the remit of other bodies e.g. the Pesticide Residues Committee.

Other than that though, good post.

Wyn Grant said...

I suppose it really depends on what you think the point of the FSA report is, although I would agree that what it provides is an appraisal of the available scientific evidence. Some organic proponents think that the FSA has an anti-organic agenda and it was established in a way that would pursue this. I don't accept that. What I would emphasise is that there is a big mismatch between the stringent regulation of crop protection products by the CRD, supplemented by retailers, and public perceptions on this issue.