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Glimmers of light in the gloom

Date Published: 13/04/2011

Our team were once again back at the Natural & Organic Products Europe show this past weekend. They reported an upbeat atmosphere and very much appreciated the chance to get together with licensees, as well as to get to know new people – some of whom might become licensees…

The view from above of OF&G and friends
The view from above of OF&G and friends

That upbeat atmosphere is important. They say it wasn’t there so much last year. And despite the fact that the show coincides (and not by chance) with the publication of the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report, which was portrayed in the press as pretty gloomy, our team felt that gloominess wasn’t the attitude reflected by the business people they spoke to.

That’s not to say everything is rosy in the organic garden, or the economy generally, but it does bode well when the individual business owners and their team members still have a spring in their step. One of our licensees told us they went away with more than 30 good leads from the two day show and there was much talk of imports being down and UK exports creeping up…

The Organic Market Report always garners a boatload of headlines. The media loves facts and figures, though it doesn’t always dig too deeply into how they’re compiled. It’s to the Soil Association’s credit that it has a go at providing a barometer for the organic market, but each year we look at the report and wonder quite what credence can be given to some of the results. For instance, we know full well that figures for production levels in 2010 aren’t publicly available yet. Defra holds much of that data and it’s always almost a year behind as far as the Organic Market Report is concerned. So, through no fault of its own, the Soil Association is having to base the production figures in its 2011 report on data that was correct as at December 31st 2009 (and that will only have been a snapshot of the sector on that day).

We would suppose that, as long as the methodology and sources for the report are the same each year, it is a way of tracking progress for the sector. But there’s no way the Soil Association charity has access to the whole picture – because no-one really does. They did confess at the report’s launch that some of the results are based on the charity’s own fairly limited surveys, some of which got less than 100 responses.

Some of the best data comes from the market research and analysis companies, such as Kantar Worldpanel, which we know the Soil Association does use, but that’s largely from the consumer end of the picture and can’t address production levels or the sentiment of farmers and food manufacturers themselves. Market researchers use very clever techniques, with their subjects accurately recording everything they eat (perhaps by scanning a barcode) when they’re at home. But what this misses is the snacking opportunities they are presented with each day or, as the SA pointed out itself at the launch, the organic sandwich eaten for lunch while out and about.

OF&G inspects and certifies around 50 per cent of UK organic milk production, maybe the same for beef and probably around 60-70 per cent of eggs and poultry, yet none of this data is pooled or shared in a meaningful way. We are extremely diligent about supplying the information to Defra – indeed it occupies a significant amount of time across our certification team to do it properly – but not all of that data is shared publicly, or at least not for a year or so after it’s been collated.

That’s not to say that the organic sector doesn’t want to have better data. Who wouldn’t? But it would be helpful if it could be more relevant, rather than fodder for headlines from which everyone takes away only the message “organic has had its day”. That’s nonsense, but it is how things tend to be portrayed, despite 15 years of amazing growth, followed by just a couple of years of slowdown.

In fact, the picture has probably been skewed further by the fact that, as the recession bit, the supermarkets assumed few people would want organic food and rushed to remove it from the shelves. It turned out they were wrong; demand remained and organic food made its return to that valuable shelf space – but a serious dent had been put in the sales figures in the meantime.

While looking back over the last two years, you can’t ignore the fact that most of the developed world has been grappling with a recession.

So while the messages coming out publicly from the Organic Market Report were pretty gloomy and numerous debates were sparked in the media about whether organic was a fading fad, on the shop floor the smiling faces and motivated people tell another story – one we’re very pleased to hear.