The terms “organic” and “sustainable” are now prominent on the menus of fashionable restaurants and food shops in the UK. A few decades ago they were hardly used. Yet organic products are still a small fraction of the overall food market, and regular buyers remain largely an affluent few.
Guy Singh-Watson, the founder of one of the UK’s largest organic vegetable box delivery companies, hopes this will change: “I just hate the fact that the food choices we make have become defining of status and class.”
Singh-Watson started selling organic vegetable boxes directly to the public from his family farm in Devon, south-west England, in the 1980s. At that time, organic farmers were mainly “freaks on the fringes,” he recalls, and the term sustainability was hardly used.
Riverford is one of Britain’s best-known organic delivery box services. It turned over almost £60 million in 2018, selling around 50,000 vegetable boxes a week, according to the company. The business attributes a 36 percent rise in sales since 2013 to consumers’ increased willingness to pay for sustainable and seasonable products, particularly when combined with the convenience of home delivery.
Despite the success of companies such as Riverford, Singh-Watson feel that the organic industry has yet to become “really mainstream” in the UK. Last year organic products made up 1.5 percent of total food and drink sales and the market was valued at £2.2 billion, according to the Soil Association, a UK food and farming charity.
One limit to the consumer appeal of organic products is that they tend to be more expensive. Mr Singh-Watson estimates that an average box of organic vegetables retails for about 30 percent more than a supermarket equivalent of non-organic produce. For certain products, such as chicken and pork, the retail price can be almost double.
Some 72 percent of UK shoppers say organic products are too expensive, according to a Kantar Worldpanel survey published in November. Also, most consumers of organic foods are light buyers, the survey found: 81 percent spend less than £40 per year on the category.
Elsewhere in Europe, organic foods are more entrenched and have more support from consumers and governments, says Clare McDermott, business development director for the Soil Association’s certification arm. She cites Amsterdam, where the city government serves organic food across some public sector canteens, and Denmark, which has policies to try to give lower income groups access to sustainable food.
“In the UK, particularly [after the recession], organic was perceived as something that was niche and nice to have,” says Ms McDermott. “A food for affluent people, rather than [being] something about best agricultural practice and improving the food we eat.”