Sales of organic food are rising at the fastest rate since the turn of the century, riding a wave of good publicity and a new concern with healthy eating among the less well-off.
Britain's biggest certification body, the Soil Association, said in its annual report that sales of organic food leapt by 30 per cent to £1.6bn in 2005 - almost treble the 11 per cent growth the previous year.
A survey for the organisation showed the appeal of organic food was spreading, with half of customers in social classes C2, D and E now buying organic food. The Soil Association said the research discredited the idea that organic food was the preserve of the "well-to-do".
Helen Browning, food and farming director, described the growth in organic sales - an extra £7m a week - as "staggering".
But she said supply was struggling to satisfy demand and revealed that retailers were "scrabbling around" to find produce. "We are just about using everything we have got and we are just about keeping the punters happy but any more growth in demand will result in shortages," she warned. She predicted the areas most likely to experience shortfalls were British organic milk, pork and beef.
Worldwide, the Organic Market Report 2006 revealed that in 2005 the market for organic food grew £1.2bn to £16.7bn - a rise of 8 per cent.
James Cleeton, the report's author, said the leap in demand in Britain had been partly prompted by a Danish study showing that organic milk had more omega 3 and trace elements than conventional milk.
He also credited the chef Jamie Oliver's television campaign to improve school dinners, which exposed the nutritional poverty of processed food. He said other factors had been a Channel 4 documentary on mass food production, Supermarket Secrets, and the launch of Sainsbury's unified organics brands, So Organics.
Demand for organic milk was particularly strong, rising by 91 per cent in a 12-week period to November. Two-thirds of Britain's supply comes from the UK's 4,000 organic farms. But the report revealed that the amount of UK land devoted to organic farming dropped by 15 per cent.
The Soil Association ascribed the drop to the withdrawal of large Scottish livestock farms at the end of a government grant scheme and pointed to a 42 per cent rise in the number of farmers interested in going organic.
The organisation blamed the shrinkage of farm space on nervousness among British farmers following a "boom and bust" cycle in which rapid pre-millennium growth slowed dramatically until last year.
Patrick Holden, the Soil Association's director, wrote in the report's foreword: "The inescapable conclusion is that, despite the buoyancy of the market, British farmers are still nervous about the economic sustainability of organic farming."
The Soil Association acknowledged that the two to four-year delay between application and certification of farms meant retailers would have to import more organic food.
Organic food and drink now account for 1.3 per cent of total sales. Although the figure is small, the UK is the third largest market for organic food in Europe after Germany and Italy.Reuse content