17 February 2021, 08:43 AM
  • Britain’s organic market saw its highest growth rate in 15 years over 2020, with independents boosting the sector by 0.9%
Will the organic sector’s Covid boom last?

The UK’s organic market is worth a whopping £2.79bn, having reached its highest growth rate in 15 years. In its Organic Market Report 2021, Soil Association Certification revealed that sales grew 12.6% in 2020, outperforming growth in the non-organic sector, with more than £50m being spent on organic food and drink per week.

The sector is now on track to reach £2.9bn by the end of this year. The Soil Association noted that independent retailers faced mixed fortunes when it came to organic sales, with some city centre stores closed while high street and community stores in particular experienced huge increases in sales as more shoppers bought their food locally. Overall, this amounted to a 0.9% rise in the organic market through independent retail.

Ben Ozmen, founder of BENS Greengrocer told Speciality Food that he has witnessed growing demand for organic products from his customers – and he says this is still increasing. “It’s a growing trend, and we notice younger customers are turning towards a more nutritional, organic diet. We have definitely seen a significant uptake in sales on organic products.”

Organic produce fits into the growing vegan and healthy food trends, too, Ben says. “More and more customers are interested in the origins of their food.”

According to the Soil Association, categories that experienced increased sales in 2020 were produce (up by 15.5%); canned and packaged goods (19.8%); meat, fish and poultry (16.8%); chilled foods (22.2%) and beers, wines and spirits (32.9%).

Organic sales go digital

Due to Covid-19, online and home delivery sales fuelled growth in the organic market in 2020, with e-commerce sales growing by 36.2%.

Rob Haward, managing director of organic veg box company Riverford Organic Farmers said the pandemic caused a “surge in demand” at a time when the business was already experiencing strong growth thanks to the growing popularity of organic and plant-based diets.

In the face of this, the company was forced to reduce its range back to veg boxes to keep up with demand and limit sales to new customers. “Even with these measures in place our sales increased by more than 40% compared to the prior year, and sales are remaining at these high levels as the continuing restrictions on people’s lives drives strong demand for home delivery of fresh organic food,” Rob said.

Rhug Estate, which is known for its commitment to organic farming, also saw its online sales rocket in lockdown, leading it to invest in a new website to meet demand. “I appreciate that online shopping is now here to stay, and as much as we miss serving our customers face to face in our farm shop we are grateful for their loyalty in switching to buying from us online,” Lord Newborough, the owner of Rhug Estate, said.

Britain should “step up” organic market

But following the rapid growth seen in 2020, what’s in store for the future of the organic sector? Roger Kerr, chief executive of OF&G (Organic Farmers & Growers) believes the organic industry holds vast potential.

“There’s such a positive outlook for organic in the domestic market, with continued growth and increasing consumer appetite. We must capitalise on this renewed interest by continuing to trumpet organic’s integrity and veracity, as the only globally recognised agroecological standard,” he said.

The outlook is strong for organic internationally, too. Following Brexit, Roger said it is important to capitalise on these opportunities. “Timing is essential, especially in light of the EU’s recent announcement of a new fund allocated to the promotion of EU agri-food products of which €86m will be used specifically to promote organic and sustainable farming within the EU and globally in 2021.

“With the UK’s new position in the world, more than ever, UK agriculture will need to be cognisant of the market opportunities and respond accordingly if the industry is to deliver value beyond simple commodities. It is vital that the UK step up and secure its share of this valuable market,” he said.

But while organic food and drink volumes rose over 2020, Roger said that organic land area has remained largely static over the last few years in England, and he is urging the government to address this “gaping hole in current policy”.

“OF&G has recorded an 85% increase in enquiries about organic certification, but ongoing transitional uncertainty around government support for the sector means many are undecided about whether to proceed. Unfortunately, we’re in a ‘catch-22’ situation.” While policy decisions around the organic sector remain uncertain, consumer demand for organic food and drink is anything but. With the sector’s growth showing no signs of letting up, for retailers the case for organic is clear.