Boom in sales of organic foods

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The Independent Online
SALES OF organic food in Britain are likely to triple in the next four years to more than pounds 1bn a year, the organic farming pressure group, the Soil Association, said yesterday.

Leading supermarkets, including Waitrose and Sainsbury's, agreed and said that, if anything, the figures were conservative.

Launching the first of what will become annual reports on the state of organic food and farming in Britain, the Soil Association said sales of fruit, vegetables and other produce grown without pesticides, artificial fertilisers or other modern intensive farming methods have nearly quadrupled since 1993.

"It has been a phenomenal period of growth, which has coincided with a period when every other sector of farming has been in deep crisis," said Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association.

Consumer alarm over food safety questions, such as the BSE crisis and genetically modified crops, is thought to be the reason for the growth.

"After all the recent food scares, consumers are asking hard questions about their food, such as how it is produced, does the production system guarantee quality and safety, and is it good for the environment and animal welfare," Mr Holden said. "Organic standards and farming answer these questions."

From under pounds 100m annually in 1993, sales grew to pounds 260m last year and are expected to be well over pounds 350m in 1998, representing just under 2 per cent of the UK food market. Continued growth is expected at more than 40 per cent a year to over pounds 1.1bn in 2002, which will represent more than 7 per cent of the UK market for foodstuffs.

But demand is already at 20 per cent of the market, despite higher prices for organic food. Demand is only not being met because of the lack of available produce, the Soil Association said. At the moment 70 per cent of organic food sold in Britain has to be imported.

"I would suggest 20 per cent is probably an underestimation of demand, but it's limited by supply," said Robert Duxbury of Sainsbury's, which is currently selling pounds 1m of organic produce a week. "Organic produce is absolutely the most exciting development in food retailing."

Alan Wilson of Waitrose said that the prediction of 40 per cent annual growth in sales was probably conservative and would be higher, "if we can get the stock".

The large-scale take-up of organic food by the supermarkets has transformed it from a minority concern to a mainstream one.

One in 10 British babies is already fed on organic foods, said Lizzie Vann, founder of Organix, a company which makes organic baby food, and the figure is likely to double in the next few years.

"It's being bought by parents who see it as a gold standard in food quality," she said. "And it will move from the baby sector to food for children. In many senses, public opinion is ahead of Government policy."

The Soil Association is to press the agriculture minister, Nick Brown, about grants for organic farming. In contrast to many EU countries, the UK provides no help for organic farmers beyond the two-year "conversion period" when they move to a system of organic husbandry. There are about 1,000 organic farmers in Britain.