By Lee Holdstock
I keep telling people that this spring has been is an exciting time for organic, but then organic is always exciting from my perspective. 2016 however has seen the alignment of some critical factors – some new, some- not so new – which create conditions ripe for further growth in organic.
If you’ve ever visited our offices in Bristol, you may have pondered the intriguing names of our meeting rooms, the Albert Howard Room, the McCarrison Room. You might have sat down to discuss important organic matters under the watchful gaze of Robert MCCarrison. I still find it astonishing that as early as 1920, people like McCarrison , charged with modernising agriculture in British India, had started to notice a link between agriculture and nutrition. Research conducted not long after in the 1930’s specifically noted reduced levels of vitamins in fruit associated with increased use of ‘new’ nitrate fertilizers. These were truly pioneering days full of theories and ideas surrounding a vital link. The inference back then was that healthy soils must logically result in health crops and health people, but it was difficult to make a solid scientific case. As champions of organic, the Soil Association has long believed that our founders were onto to something big. Surely the best way to make healthy food for our bodies is farming in a way that respects and makes use of natural systems.
More than 70 years later and we’re finally seeing the evidence that organic IS different. In Feb Newcastle University meta-analysis concluded that organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic products; 40% more conjugated lineolic acid (CLA); and slightly higher concentrations of iron, vitamin E and some carotenoids. This backs up ground-breaking research from 2014 which demonstrated equally well that organic fruit and vegetables are also nutritionally superior, containing more key antioxidants, up to 69% in some instances.
The reasons for buying organic shift in terms of priority, but don’t really change much year-to-year. After all, organic delivers a lot of benefits. Where once demand came from the dark greens who were fixated on environmental and animal welfare issues, as the market matured motivations did shift. By the naugties demand for organic was boosted by consumers worried about the safety of their food. Food scares such as BSE and salmonella really focused consumer on the food on the plate in front of them, making them ask some tough questions about its origin. Nutritional benefits were still there, but arguably dropped down the list. Even though based on very little research and with a highly questionable methodology, the Food Standards Agencies highly controversial 2008 report on organic food put doubt in the consumers mind about these benefits. Inevitably the organic market suffered. These were dark days for organic, a market reliant on the ongoing commitment of farmers, processors and those dark green consumers to keep it alive. And thankfully they did.
Fast-forward to 2016 and things are looking significantly better. Not only do we have a better evidence than ever to support the proposition of the movements founders, but this coincides with increasing interest from the young ‘millennials’ in food in general. No longer is it the ‘Empty Nesters’ driving the market, it actually the 18-35 year olds. Thanks to Newcastle we can now prove that pioneers like McCarrison were on the right track, and there is a growing young, health-conscious consumer who’s all-ears. They are ready to hear the facts and are increasingly making their needs known through social media, posting endless photos of their nutritious (often green) meals and really sharing the buzz about organic.
The alignment of academic evidence, new confidence in the market and ever more interested consumers gets me really excited. Why? Well this new conjunction presents a fantastic opportunity to take organic to the next level of accessibility and availability. Perhaps a chance to catch-up with other bigger , faster-growing EU markets. France’s organic market is currently growing at 15%, Sweden’s a staggering 45%. By engaging with these new media savvy consumers – be it through digital media, events, campaigns or awards, we can deliver the unequivocal facts about why organic is a better choice. I’m guessing they’ll react positively in the face of those facts . I’m also guessing McCarrison and his peers saw this day coming long ago, albeit a bit later than they would have hoped. What a relief and what a great time to be involved in organic.
By Lee Holdstock - Trade Relations Manager at Soil Association