Twenty years ago, those who espoused the cause of organic food were considered a strange, marginal species. Two decades later attitudes to food among a sizeable percentage of the population have performed an about-turn.
Organic food sales have topped £1bn a year in Britain for the first time, making the country the third largest organic food market in the world after the United States and Germany. A report by the Soil Association published yesterday also showed that organic food and drink sales were rising twice as fast as their conventional counterparts.
Patrick Holden, the association's director, said: "Shoppers are clearly showing that they want local organic food, giving a strong message to supermarkets to support this country's farmers." The next challenge, he said, was for schools and restaurants to serve organic food so that children could be guaranteed healthy food outside the home.
The remarkable growth comes despite powerful critics questioning whether there were any tangible health benefits to eating organic. Sir John Krebs, chairman of the Food Standards Agency has said there was no proof that was the case.
What is beyond doubt is that buying organic can add 50 per cent or more on to the weekly grocery bill. An average broiler chicken costs £3.99 compared to about £7 for an organically produced one.
But supporters of organic food believe that concerns over food quality, fuelled by the BSE crisis and anxiety about genetically modified foods, mean that safety should come first when buying food.
New parents are particularly enthusiastic about organic food. Three out of four babies are being given organic food and about 40 per cent of the baby food market is organic, according to the Soil Association's figures.
Georgina Porter, 32, from London, has two girls and tries to feed them organic food. She said: "I just feel better because it's natural and hasn't been tampered with in any way. When humans interfere with nature there are really terrible consequences."
Most people buying into the organic lifestyle do so because they believe the products taste better, the Soil Association says. But concerns persist. Tehmina Boman, 36, and her partner went organic after she had her daughter, Ava, six and a half months ago. They were worried about the effects chemicals and antibiotics in meats and pesticides in vegetables could have on their child. "She seems to like everything and hasn't been sick once or had an allergic reaction to anything," said Ms Boman.
There are 3,991 certified organic farms in Britain with 726,400ha under cultivation.
More than 1,500 processors are registered to turn that produce into products for the supermarket shelf.
One successful company is run by Pauline Stiles. She launched her Wiltshire-based organic food company Pure Organics with her husband in 1998 out of concern about the food her autistic daughter Georgia, now 13, was eating. While she had no scientific facts to support her feeling that the flimsy mass-produced hamburgers and lurid orange chicken nuggets her daughter used to devour made her condition worse, she said that she believed there had been a sea change in her behaviour since she went organic.
"When she was five or six she wouldn't let me touch her, she wouldn't look me in the eye. There was very little communication," Ms Stiles said. "Now she is the most loving child you could wish for. She cuddles, she's opened up. You can now have a conversation. It's amazing the change in her."
Pure Organics makes food that children like, such as pork sausages, but theirs are made up of 80 per cent pork with 20 per cent of organic rice, herbs and seasoning.
But where the small companies have gone, the multinationals have followed.
Heinz markets standard baby food with an organic alternative, while Sainsbury's launched its own-label organic infant range two years ago - having been an early pioneer after marketing organic carrots in 1986.
The organic movement has also struck a chord with a public growing increasingly alarmed at images of intensive meat farming - particularly chickens. Production of organic poultry has jumped by a third in the last year, to 3.5 million birds. The value of organic beef sales increased by 76 per cent in the last year.
The Food Animal Initiative, in Oxfordshire, said that its animals enjoyed a better of quality life and also benefited the environment.
For instance, pigs are kept on a wood-chip floor to mimic their natural woodland habitat rather than on a slatted concrete floor as is standard in most farms.
Roland Bonney, the initiative's director, said that he believed his pigs were happier and less stressed. "Anecdotally, there appears to be less aggressive interaction because they've got more to do," he said, noting that the pigs spent most of their time rooting around in the chips.
The organic movement has found itself a willing ally in the Government. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has stated that by 2010, 70 per cent of organic food sold in England would come from English farms.
But there is a lot of work to do to meet that goal. Only four per cent of agricultural land in Britain is dedicated to organic farming and 56 per cent of organic products are imported.
Much of the fruit comes from New Zealand and the United States while vegetables are mainly brought in from parts of Europe and North Africa.
The average family spends £53.34 on organic food a week - up ten per cent in the last year. Eight out of ten shoppers admit to having bought organic in the past 12 months. But despite the huge room for growth, organic farmers are particularly vulnerable to pressure from supermarkets to drive down prices.
Sue Flook, a spokeswoman for the Soil Association, said: "This year's figures are very very encouraging. We're certainly heading the right way but we can't rest on our laurels."
Ms Johnson predicted that farmers would continue to convert to organic farming, led by demand "but only by people who can afford to pay up to 50 per cent more for their food. That's the bottom line".
SERVING THE GROWING APPETITE
The Livestock Farmers
For Tim and Jo Budden, switching from conventional to organic farming 5 years ago was a financial and commercial risk. It took time and patience for the industry to gather pace, says Mr Budden, 43, who produces organic meats.
"It was seen as quite an odd thing to do. Now it is much more acceptable. As people became more aware of what they were eating, the market grew."
Higher Hacknell Farm, Umberleigh, Devon www.higherhacknell.co.uk
The Babyfood Entrepreneur
When Sally Preston set up her babyfood company in Ealing, west London, 15 months ago, she had not intended for it to be exclusively organic. However, six out of eight products in her Babylicous range are now organic. "The babyfood industry is so highly regulated now that there is no discernible difference between organic and non-organic," she said, "but parents feel that organic food is important to a child to begin with."
George Wakefield likes to use organically produced ingredients at his restaurant The Mill Race in Leeds, even down to the cocktails. "We're very interested in quality food and a lot of organic food is top quality in terms of its taste," he says. "There is also a political edge to it, sustainability as opposed to intensive farming." He says that at first it was difficult to find suppliers in the area. "Now there are three so it has become easier," he says. The Mill Race, 2/4 Commercial Road, Kirkstall, Leeds
The Vegetable Supplier
Riverford Farm in Buckfastleigh, Devon, was started 18 years ago as a small, family-run business. It employs more than 250 workers on its 1,000-acre site selling meat, dairy produce and vegetables to supermarkets and local communities. Its owner, Guy Watson, left, developedthe business by sticking to the essentials. Mr Watson, 43, said: "We stuck to what we know ... In the Eighties there was a growth in interest in organic farming and, if you can grow food without chemicals, why not?"
Riverford Farm, Wash Barn, Buckfastleigh, Devon, www.riverford.co.uk
The Delivery Man
When Keith Able set up an organic food company in 1983, he had to deliver potatoes to customers from a basement in Catford, south-east London. Now he has one of Britain's largest organic home delivery companies. He says the secret is his unwavering commitment to top-quality British goods. "We want the customer to feel they might have grown it themselves."
Abel and Cole Ltd. 8 to 15 MGI Estate, Milkwood Road, London www.abel-cole.co.ukReuse content