Where next for organic food?

Where to now and next for organic food? This is the question Maartje van den Berg, Rabobank’s senior analyst for consumer foods, has focused upon following the annual Biofach fair in Nuremberg, Germany.

This is the world’s biggest organic and foods trade fair, so what happens here points towards what’s coming down the line.

Van der Berg emphasised that organic has the wind in its sails, compared to the fairly stagnant general food market.

However, for countries with a significant amount of organic food sales, this growth shows “some signs of stabilising”.

“A few examples: market growth in France was 22% in 2016, and 18% in 2017. In the Netherlands, it was 9% in 2016 and 5% in 2017. The big exception is Spain, where the market for organic food grew stronger in 2017 (+16%) than in 2016 (+12%).”

Overall the EU growth for organics, at 11%, is still strong, while it is expanding into eateries and public procurement, in particular, she notes.

The accepted upper limit of organic consumption is seen to be 5-15% of consumers: that’s those with the interest and the money to buy organic.

However “there are signs that the ‘natural’ reservoir of organic buyers is growing, as younger consumers are more geared towards sustainable consumption, and organic is trendy. Plus, of course, in many countries, disposable incomes are rising, while at the same time, price premiums of organic products are coming down.”

This latter point on premiums is important, and a sign of a maturing sector:

The recent stabilising or slightly lower growth of the organic food market is more an effect of lower price premiums, with volumetric growth continuing.

Anecdotal conversations this columnist has had with organic food businesses supplying the German market confirm this: reaching an organic price premium is easier in Ireland than in a country where organic is fast becoming an everyday purchase.

In Ireland, organic is the premium, in Germany, it’s one of the required markers to set your product apart.

As van der Berg puts it: “The organic food players are already strongly diversifying their offer. Where a few years ago ‘just’ the organic label was enough to sell a product, we now see brands and products marketed as healthy and natural (and organic).”

Biofach also saw a huge focus on ecological packaging and on plant-based foods, while there was also animated discussion on the future direction of organic itself. Should it expand sales or deepen its green credentials?

While the clichéd notion of the “conventionalisation” of organics presumes that the sector slowly turns into the conventional sector, as often is the case with political economy perspectives, nuance is needed. So in this case, the Rabobank author points to the significant growth into the German market of Demeter (certified biodynamic) produce.

Biodynamic produce in many ways predates organic, and is seen as coming from a ‘muck and magic’ end of the organic spectrum. And yet, it keeps coming back as organic food sales ride waves and crash, come and go, ebb and flow.

This phenomenon shows itself in the stricter elements in the new organic standard (for example with regard to seeds) and in the ongoing discussions on the threshold levels of what are considered contaminants in organics food from conventional inputs. This too was a Biofach discussion — how low should the levels be set for (for example,  the pesticide residues from field drift, or food processing inputs that may pass over in a lorry or packing house).

Recently, we spotlighted here  that there are new approaches – regenerative, biological and more – that may look and seem like organic, but more, as it were, earthy. Since then, it has been announced that the Organic Trust will provide Pasture for Life certification for “100% grass-fed meat and dairy in Ireland”.

How this relates to organic certification we’ll investigate in the weeks ahead.

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