22nd May, 2008
Can big ever be beautiful where organic foods are concerned? Ed Hamer gets to grips with one of the environmental consumer’s greatest dilemmas
Click on the links below to read about the corporate organic brands
Work starts early at Coleshill organic farm in Oxfordshire. And it’s not surprising: providing an impressive 80 varieties of fruit and vegetables from a modest 30 acres, the farm supplies as many as 450 veg boxes a week to local residents, schools and businesses. A commitment to providing ‘local food for local people in a sustainable way’ ensures, as owner Sonia Oliver points out, ‘our produce never travels more than 25 miles from plot to plate’.
Several time zones away in Dallas, Texas, work also starts early for the sales team at Dean Foods, the world’s largest dairy processor and distributor. Analysts study activity on the international commodity markets to determine which product lines should be expanded and which checked. Depending on the share price, it could be a good time for Hershey’s milkshake range or boom-time for Rachel’s Organics.
While these scenes may appear miles apart, they are in fact the two contrasting faces of the fastest-growing food market in the world. With an annual increase well into double figures, Western Europe, the world’s largest organic marketplace, was valued at €25.7 billion in 2006.
The UK’s contribution to this figure – £1.9 billion a year – is the third largest after Germany and Italy, with our organic retail sector growing by an average of 27 per cent a year. Recent estimates, however, suggest that the UK market accounts for only 70 per cent of current demand, leaving a massive £800 million a year shortfall in organic supply.
Unsurprisingly, figures of this magnitude do not go unnoticed by the biggest players in the global food economy. Despite the fact it emerged more than 50 years ago as a reaction to the rapid industrialisation of our agriculture, the organic movement is increasingly viewed as a sector worthy of investment by the very corporations that it first resisted.
While it is argued that this move should be welcomed as a sign of big business moving in the right direction, the goals of agricultural globalisation are fundamentally opposed to the roots of the organic movement. Such an obvious contrast inevitably raises a dilemma for the consumer: should we embrace corporate organics as the new dawn of the green corporation, or are organics simply seen as yet another brand to be marketed?
Conviction farming uprooted? Organic farming is rooted firmly in the conviction that healthy soil is essential in order to produce healthy crops and healthy animals. As a result, organic production requires extensive management practices, which are often more costly in time and resources than conventional alternatives.
For many years the organic model contrasted strongly with the worldwide trend of agricultural industrialisation. In the UK, subsidies offered for intensification under the Common Agricultural Policy simply made organic land management uneconomical for the majority of farmers. Instead, the modern organic movement has been supported for more than half a century by a handful of committed producers and consumers.
Throughout the 1990s, however, things began to change. A series of health scares linked to factory farming raised questions about the safety of food systems promoting quantity over quality. In the debate that followed, the organic movement justifiably emerged to represent the ideal, both in terms of food quality and animal welfare.
Traditionally, consumers have been happy to pay more for organic produce to guarantee their food is produced in ways both ethically and environmentally sound. A recent survey conducted by the UK’s leading certification body, the Soil Association, found that food safety, the environment and animal welfare concerns remain the primary motivations for consumers choosing organic over conventional produce.
The organic philosophy does not simply stop at the farm gate, though. According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), the principles of organic production apply to every aspect of the supply chain, ‘from farming and processing through to distribution and consumption’.
While 50 years ago this chain may have stretched from the furthest farmstead to the nearest town, today it is just as likely to reach halfway around the world. And this, in essence, has led to the inevitable compromise at the heart of the debate. Should business bow to the demands of the organic movement, or should incentives be offered to encourage big business on board?
Lady Eve Balfour, founder of the Soil Association, clearly anticipated the problem when she argued back in 1976: ‘If fresh food is necessary to health in man and beast, then that food must be provided not only from our own soil, but as near as possible to the sources of consumption. If this involves fewer imports and consequent repercussions on exports, then it is industry that must be readjusted to the needs of food.’
The organic market doubtless has the potential to revolutionise how the big do business – after all, it was the original organic boom in the 1990s that shocked big business into confronting the growing ethical market for the first time. In doing so, the movement arguably set a precedent that has been followed by Fairtrade and has contributed significantly to the current climate of corporate social responsibility.
According to Mary Rayner of Ethical Consumer magazine, the organic market today is in a powerful position. ‘Because of its phenomenal value the organic market can afford to make exceptional demands from corporate suppliers,’ she says. ‘In doing so, organics represent one of the most powerful tools we have in bringing big business kicking and screaming into the corporate responsibility of the 21st century.’
Battling big business
In our efforts to take the movement worldwide, however, there is a danger that big business has been allowed to benefit from organic status while continuing to operate decidedly inorganic business practices. Unless the big players are wholly committed and held accountable there is a risk that the movement’s founding principles may simply be seen as another on-cost to be ‘rationalised’.
Richard Riggs, an organic poultry farmer from north Devon, has become increasingly concerned over the influence of big business on organic standards in the UK. For six years he sat on the advisory panel for his organic certification body, but earlier in 2007 Richard resigned his position and withdrew his subscription in protest at what he sees as ‘the erosion of organic standards by big business’.
‘As these big companies try to corner the market they have little choice but to bump up production by letting the standards slip,’ he says. ‘While the majority of producers see the standards as minimum requirements to be exceeded, commercial units have consistently campaigned to have them lowered.’
Large-scale supply also has repercussions for established organic growers in the UK. Given time, it is likely the £800 million shortfall in the market could largely be met by our own farmers, stimulating a new wave of organic conversions across the country. In reality, however, it is the largest suppliers, the ones that can guarantee immediate supplies at the lowest prices, that win the contracts.
This is important when considering just one per cent of the population is now employed in land-related enterprises, compared with 30 per cent in the 1950s. Organic acreage in the UK is stagnating as a direct result of competition from supermarkets, which have driven down the price of organic produce to the extent that conversion is no longer a viable business decision.
Carbon shopping the organic way
It seems big business must also address its carbon footprint if it is to gain the respect of the organic consumer. Following a threemonth public consultation in 2007, the Soil Association announced its decision in October to restrict certification of air-freighted ‘organic’ produce from 2008. Although airfreight accounts for as little as two per cent of the UK’s organic supplies, industrialisation has seen this figure double in the past five years.
The balance is a fine one, however. It is impossible to ignore the role that the largest retailers have played in sustaining the current demand for organic produce. By 2006, 75 per cent of UK organic product purchases were made in supermarkets. Patrick Holden, director of The Soil Association, believes that while it is important to recognise this contribution, ultimately the future of the movement lies in the hands of true organic producers such as Coleshill.
‘Though millions are now buying organic in a committed way, there is a tightrope to be walked: we must promote organic farming, but not industrialised organic production. We have to protect the philosophy and the founding principles of the movement, which is why, after all, people buy organic. Food and agriculture are central to the problems of climate change and the post-peak oil world.’
As organic consumers, the first and foremost action we can take is a commitment to buy food produced as locally as possible. We have little excuse for doing otherwise: farm shops and produce stalls are sprouting up like mushrooms across our countryside, while farmers’ markets are opening up in our towns and cities at a rate of one a week.
If you can’t find a market or are unable to buy direct from the farmer, contact the manager of your local supermarket to ask whether they source their organic produce locally – and if not, why not? If you are concerned that corporate organics may be compromising organic standards then write to the company and let them know.
As we have seen, the organic consumer is increasingly viewed by industry as the face of things to come. This unique position allows a single consumer’s concern to register as a considerable vote for change in the boardroom. If we act now to emphasise that organic is not simply a marketing opportunity, but a movement that demands respect, industry will be forced to deliver not only quality to the consumer, but also integrity.
To find your nearest organic farm, see www.whyorganic.org.
To find your local farmers’ market, see www.farmersmarkets.net
This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2007
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