Bright outlook for organics as shoppers return to the sector

The outlook for the UK organic sector is looking brighter as consumer interest in organic food and drink starts to grow following the economic downturn.

Delegates at the National Organic Cereals 2014 event, organised by Organic Farmers & Growers at Rectory Farm, Milton Keynes, on Tuesday (1 July), were told that organic sales were increasing after a difficult few years.

And with shoppers buying organic food more often, experts from retail and science were keener than ever to work with the industry to help farmers manage their soils and boost productivity.

Listening to a snapshot of the organic sector from speakers including retailers, academics and industry experts, producers from across the country heard that sales of organic produce had grown by almost 5.5% over the past 12 months, adding £44m to the organic market.

While shoppers were still price-conscious, more people were buying organic groceries more regularly, said Kantar Worldpanel’s Ed Garner.

“The frequency of shopping is up nearly 4%, while sales volumes are up 6%. That means that people are going shopping more often and buying organic more frequently. It’s becoming a habit to buy organic,” he said.

“While people aren’t necessarily rushing out to buy organic, we are seeing growth, particularly in the dairy sectors,” he added. “Organic yoghurt sales have increased by 13.7% and organic milk has increased by 9.2%.”

Duncan Sinclair, agriculture manager of Waitrose, which retails 25% of the UK’s organic groceries, said that the retailer was anticipating future growth in the sector.

The challenge now was to find ways to help drive organic production to enable producers to meet the retailer’s predictions for growth.

“When you look at our plans to 2018, there are huge opportunities for the organic producers across all sectors,” he said.

“We predict we will require 20% greater volume in organic milk, 40% more lamb, 30% more eggs, 20% more pigs and beef and 10% more organic chicken.

“We are taking a long-term view and want to grow organic supplies for the future.”

Shamal Mohammed, research manager at the HGCA, told delegates how predicted growth in the sector was being supported by £2.6m of UK research into soil quality.

Projects being carried out until 2016 included looking at the best way to add organic matter to the soil to increase worm populations and improve soil structure, using soil management zones, and tramline management to reduce soil compaction.

“In 1963 the average weight of a tractor was 3.3t, but now we are seeing tractors with 628 horse power weighing 25t,” Dr Mohammed said. “Compaction is a major problem in soil management, followed by soil organic matter content which falls by 0.6% across England and Wales every year.

“We hope these research projects will help address these issues.”

Roger Kerr, OF&G chief executive, said the challenge now was to ensure producers were given the tools to respond to growing demand.

“Things are looking much brighter for the organic sector, but there are challenges,” he said.

“As well as being able to use the latest science to help growers utilise their land more efficiently, integrity of feed is a major issue in ensuring producers are able to take advantage of the increasing demand.

“If we are going to help meet retailers’ targets for organic meat and dairy produce we need to see supplies of organic feed increase dramatically.

“Our aim at OF&G is to create closer ties across the supply chain to help farmers get the tools they need, and to build strong stories across the sector to drive consumer support for organic further.”

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