Soil Association outlines ‘Organic For All’ vision at this year’s Organic Trade Conference

Daniel Zeichner

Daniel Zeichner MP, shadow minister for food, farming and fisheries, shared Labour’s agenda on sustainable farming

The Soil Association Group used its annual trade conference last week (2 November) to share its vision for Organic For All’ – an ambitious new approach for scaling organic production and consumption in the UK.

Its approach aims to make organic affordable, available and accessible to everyone in society built on a strategy engaging everyone within the industry to create an organic action plan.

The organisation said it has mapped a pathway to negotiate the many complex and inherent challenges that the sector faces to make organic truly affordable, available and accessible to everyone in society.

It explained that while the organic sector has enjoyed over a decade of sustained growth, it is not fulfilling its full potential in the UK – and this needs to change - rapidly.

Soil Association associate director standards Innovation Sarah Compson said: “The organic sector has plenty to be proud of and offers genuine solutions to the climate, nature and health crises with its globally scalable approach to food and farming. But here in the UK we have hit a bit of a wall.

“Organic food isn’t affordable, available or accessible to everyone in society. It is too niche and regrettably we do not share the same aspirations as our European neighbours where the EU has its 25 per cent organic land target and ambitious policies and incentives to drive organic production.

“In the UK, support for organic has been left to the market – and while this appeared to be a good approach it is has had significant and damning consequences. Organic has been premiumised – as a margin opportunity with very little of this premium making it back to our farmers – and reinforcing organic’s reputation as elitest and niche.

“Political support for organic has historically been poor in the UK, and whilst it’s great to see the Scottish government’s recent commitment, the English and Welsh governments are missing a huge opportunity to capitalise on the multiple benefits of organic by failing to develop ambitious and progressive policies and plans for supporting organic.”

Making organic affordable

The Soil Association has divided the thinking about how to make organic affordable, available and accessible to everyone in society into three main areas of focus which it explored in depth during its conference:

  • Organic must be valued - making the benefits of organic clear for different audiences demonstrating the contribution that organic production and consumption makes to climate, nature and health must be well-evidenced and clearly understood. We also need to acknowledge that the current market economy has failed to significantly value and reward food and farming systems that are good for climate, nature and health, and the polluter doesn’t pay for damage caused to the natural world.
  • Organic must be supported - financially and practically supported in order to scale. Favourable national policies, backed up by appropriate financial support and incentives have been a cornerstone of organic sector development in other countries, and are the engine of organic market growth as they provide a business case for farmers to convert and stay organic, and support innovation in routes to market.
  • Organic must be available - with easy access to organic food, both at home and in public settings such as schools and hospitals. To achieve this, we’ll need to work closely with retailers so that they expand organic product ranges and assortments, position organic better in stores and communicate the ‘why’ of organic much more clearly. We must also support the development and growth of alternative routes to market and increase community-led initiatives to improve access to healthy organic food.

Soil Association Certification commercial and marketing director Alex Cullen said: “We’ve mapped a pathway for achieving organic for all which attempts to take all this complexity into account. But we can’t do it alone. It will only be possible to achieve with the collaboration and input of the whole organic sector. And we’re lucky that there are lots of great organisations and individuals already working on issues that are integral to achieving ‘organic for all’.

“Over the next few months we want to talk to the organic sector, to develop our plans together and uplift and link great work already happening, and plan new activities that drive the shared outcomes we want to see. Organic for All will be a core theme of the Soil Association’s work in the coming years. We look forward to working with you all to realise the vision.”

Key-note speakers

Soil Association Certification’s Organic Trade Conference in London on 2 November hosted speakers including Daniel Zeichner MP, shadow minister for food, farming and fisheries; keynote speaker, Dr Tasmin Edwards, professor of climate change, King’s College London; and Mike Watkins, head of retailer and business insight, NielsenIQ.

Zeichner shared an insight into Labour’s agenda on sustainable farming and food ahead of the general election next year and the potential impacts on the organic sector and food and farming more widely.

Zeichner said: “The next Labour government is committed to supporting a transition to more environmental and nature friendly farming system. But we need to have everyone engaged and we must encourage all farmers to change their practices for the better and for our food manufacturers, supply chains, and retailers to work together to facilitate a more sustainable and healthy system for all.

“I am very excited to hear how the organic sector, which has pioneered much of the shift to nature friendly farming, plans to address some of the inequalities within the food sector and to ensure that organic is relevant to all and benefits everyone in society to broaden its appeal and ensure that the UK can take similar steps to shift to a more organic based food system like some of the European case studies we have heard today.”

Watkins then presented an in-depth retail picture asking the question: how will organic sales bounce back? He outlined how organic has performed across supermarkets this year as the cost-of-living crisis developed and high inflation and interest rates continued. He also presented some predicted shopping behaviours for 2024 and what this could mean for organic.

He said: “With unprocessed and sustainable food rising up the shoppers` agenda, organic has an opportunity to widen its customer base as inflation subsides, And continue to message that organic has a bigger role to play in ensuring that our food is safe, secure and socially responsible and is also natural and biodiverse.”

Lessons from Denmark

Mads Sejersen Vinther, technical political chief advisor, Organic Denmark then shared a success story for organic – providing a whistlestop tour of how organic has become the success story that it is today in Denmark. Exploring the role of sector collaboration, successful consumer campaigns, and how retailer engagement has been key to making organic a regular staple in 35 per cent of the population’s shopping baskets.

Sejersen Vinther said: “We have an ambitious goal to grow organic to make 30 per cent of cultivated land is under organic production and that organic has 30 per cent of the market by 2030 – this will be driven by consumers, by retailers and the state.

“Key to changing consumer perceptions has been achieved with the Danish Spirsemark (catering awards) which demands that 60 per cent of food in public sector catering must be organic – the reality is many are using 90 per cent organic or higher. This has helped consumers realise what they can achieve in their own kitchens and in turn this has helped retailers to increase organics share of the market. New recipes developed and shared in public catering and in high end restaurants have radically changed perceptions of what is possible, delicious and desirable.”

Concluding the conference, Soil Association Certification reiterated its role in facilitating and building the Organic For All vision and called for the whole sector to join.

Compson said: “Over the next few months we want to talk to the organic sector, to develop our plans together and uplift and link great work already happening, and plan new activities that drive the shared outcomes we want to see. We want your feedback on the plan and to know which areas you would be interested in being involved evolving.

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