Food Industry

Published on May 28th, 2010 | by Steve Savage

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Organic Food Sales in the UK Drop 13%. Why?

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Organic Monitor, a group that follows organic sales in Europe, recently reported a 13% drop in organic food sales last year.  Smaller but significant drops were seen elsewhere in Europe.  This group attributes much of this to the economic turn-down, but also to some consumer confusion. “Whilst consumers are demanding products with low environmental and social impacts, the plethora of logos and symbols is creating consumer confusion.” Those are probably important factors, but there may well be more.

Health Claims Questioned

Last July it was widely reported in the UK that the British Food Standards Agency had published an extensive review of 50 years of literature and concluded that Organic food is no healthier and provides no significant nutritional benefit over conventionally produced food.  When people’s budgets are stretched or their confidence in the future eroded, this sort of information would diminish interest in paying the “Organic Premium.”

Europe Has an Agricultural Productivity Issue

On May 11th of this year an independent research center in Brussels called OPERA released a report titled: “EU Agricultural Production and Trade: Can More Efficiency Prevent Increasing “Land-Grabbing’ Outside of Europe?” It showed that in 2007/8 Europe’s demand for food, animal feed and biofuels led to a net importation large enough to require 35 million hectares of farmland outside of the borders of Europe – a 40% increase since 1999.  This represents an area about the size of Germany!

The report also observed that if the EU were to expand Organic acreage to 20%, it would increase “virtual land importation” by another 30%.  The authors called on European governments to focus on increasing productivity to reverse this trend of exporting their farming footprint.  From their analysis, Organic would be exactly the wrong direction to go.

Whether some UK and European consumers are responding to these reports or just watching pennies is difficult to determine.

Swiss produce market image by Steve Savage

You are welcome to comment on this post or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



2 Responses to Organic Food Sales in the UK Drop 13%. Why?

  1. Courtney says:

    “…Organic food is no healthier and provides no significant nutritional benefit over conventionally produced food.”

    It’s unfortunate that so many people and authorities miss the point that it’s not *all* about us humans. I always felt that, while it’s nice to remove the pesticides from my own diet, the point is really to remove them from the environment of those with no choice – the other animals and plants we share our world with. I probably absorb more toxins from living in a densely populated and heavily automobile-centric metroplex than from conventionally grown groceries.

    On the other hand, it’s understandable that a country would want to protect its own farmers. Perhaps they feel that local (i.e., domestic) produce is better even if it is conventionally grown, due to the reduced transportation costs.

  2. Steve Savage says:

    Courtney,

    First of all, you can’t remove pesticides from your diet. If you buy Organic you just get a different set of pesticides, and some of them (particularly the copper fungicides) are not that good for you or the environment. A great many synthetic pesticides are far less toxic and have fewer environmental impacts.

    But even beyond that, plants make their own pesticides in the form of intermediary metabolites. These are often more toxic than modern synthetic pesticides. Caffeine and Capsaicin are both examples and they are more toxic that 90% of the pesticides that are sprayed on crops. Obviously we eat those things voluntarily at doses that don’t hurt us.

    As for transportation costs – local is not automatically better. Transport is generally a fairly small proportion of the energy/carbon footprint of a crop, particularly if it is shipped by efficient means. A small truck from a local farm can be pretty inefficient. A whole bunch of people driving a few extra miles to a local farm can be a huge footprint. Notice sometime how many vehicles are parked at a farmer’s market. If you can get something riper or fresher from these sources I’d do it for that reason, not thinking there is any environmental benefit

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