As the UK organics market continues to grow and Brexit poses both challenges and opportunities, experts are eyeing a sea change in the way we think about food. Could thinking of ourselves as citizens rather than consumers transform our food system?
From climate change to animal welfare, we’re often told that most people don’t really care about huge issues related to food. ‘Consumers don’t want it’ – goes the mantra from supermarkets, businesses, NGOs, even governments. This kind of language entrenches an unhelpful dynamic, say those at the New Citizenship Project thinktank: that our role is limited to consumption. We can tweak our food system only by choosing between the products already on offer.
But change is afoot.
From farmers and producers, to retailers and chefs, a growing chorus of voices is calling for a more sustainable food system in the UK. Jamie Oliver is among those promoting a switch to healthy, organic food, while ‘eco chef’ Tom Hunt draws attention to the true value of food by cooking up tasty banquets from discarded produce. Meanwhile, industry experts are learning from Denmark’s culture of folkeligt – the word that describes how eating local, organic food makes people feel proud and connected. Half of all Danes buy organic produce each week, and 80 per cent at least every month.
Here, Radio DJ Sara Cox launched the Organic Trade Board’s Feed Your Happy Campaign during this year’s Organic September, saying: “Give me a knobbly misshapen organic strawberry over the weirdly uniform non-organic ones any day. Food grown organically is food as it should be.”
Consumers, by definition, consume. That’s it. But people have far more to offer than just the act of consumption
Particularly telling though is the Soil Association’s 2017 Organic Market Report, sponsored by Triodos Bank, which revealed that the UK organic market is in its fifth year of strong growth, and now worth £2.09 billion. Sales grew by 7.1 per cent in 2016, particularly impressive given that sales of non-organic items actually declined.
It’s not all been plain sailing though. The financial crisis of 2008 saw UK organic food sales derailed: they declined more than in any other country. The result was a low point of £1.74bn in revenue in 2012 – a fall of 36 per cent from 2008.
Even now, organic produce makes up just 1.5 per cent of the UK market, leaving us lagging behind countries including France (three per cent), Germany (five per cent), the US (five per cent) and Denmark (nine per cent).
So, before we think about the role that the psychology of our consumer culture plays in the sustainable food equation, what would it take from a supply point for view to turn the recent resurgence into a full-blown organics revolution?
Firstly, we need to make it easier for farmers to switch, says Simon Crichton, food, farming and trade team manager at Triodos Bank. “Organic agriculture can play a significant part in solving several key issues society faces today, but all too often, those who produce our food are left behind, trying to scratch out a living to keep us fed.”
Converting a farm to organics takes between two and five years – a long-term investment for an industry whose market is liable to fluctuations and in which the average age of farmers is 59.
“Currently the biggest hurdle is the ‘economics’ of the food system itself,” notes Crichton. “Processors and retailers need large-scale continuous supply to drive down per-unit costs. Specialisation means a lower diversity of crops and reduced crop rotation – detrimental to soil health. Besides, selling only to intermediaries means that a farm is functionally disconnected from what the consumer wants, making them entirely dependent on the distributor. It’s a huge financial risk for any family farm that seeks to escape this system.”
But a growing network of support is available to help organic and smaller-scale alternatives and support the transition process. Groups such as the Soil Association, Organic Farmers and Growers, and the Organic Trade Board are helping set standards, and bring skills and growth to the industry. Triodos itself is on board too.
Among the upsides of converting to organic production is future-proofing soil itself: as climate change makes rainfall patterns less reliable, long-term success for farmers may depend on how they treat the earth beneath their feet. Key to water retention is the proportion of organic matter in soil, and organic farmers who add manure and compost to their fields, stand to benefit, while also reducing flood risk and capturing carbon.
“We look to support farmers and growers who want to care for their farms, their land, their animals and the food they produce,” says Crichton. “Organics allows them to do this, and the result is a healthier product and food economy.”
But even with better support for organic producers, people need to increase their consumption of organic food in order to boost the sector’s success. And here is where it’s particularly useful to look beyond price. A new report – True Cost Accounting in Farming and Finance, co-sponsored by Triodos Bank – reminds us that cost is just one aspect of what we eat, but the social and environmental implications of production make the ‘true cost’ of food much higher than we may think. Zooming out still further, those at the New Citizenship Project believe that psychology – the narrow framing in which we see ourselves within the food system – plays a key role.
Co-founder of the New Citizenship Project, Jon Alexander, says: “Consumers, by definition, consume. That’s it. But people have far more to offer than just the act of consumption. As parents and friends, we can advise and even teach; as shareholders, we can invest and shape the policies of the companies in which our money is invested; as citizens, we can vote for policies and representatives that shape the operating environment.”
The New Citizenship Project believes that a more sustainable food system – one that is fairer, more sustainable, yet still profitable – starts with the mindset around our involvement in it.
As outlined in the team’s Food Citizenship report, rather than seeing ourselves as consumers who ‘demand’, ‘choose’ or ‘receive’ and are driven by price and convenience alone, we can instead act as citizens who ‘participate’, ‘create’ and ‘shape’.
“It’s easy to think of ‘consumer’ as just a word, but in reality this label serves to entrench deeply unhelpful dynamics in our food system by telling us that our power to shape the food system is limited to choices between products, and the signals these choices send through the system,” says Alexander.
“This situation drives the perception that most people don’t care about the damage caused by our existing food system, and this perception in turn serves to perpetuate existing behaviours through that system, at every level.”
Not only does this drive unsustainable consumption patterns that place price over planet but, says Alexander, though we may save money in the short term, we pay in other ways. Hidden costs come in the form of NHS bills, higher taxes to remove pesticides from water supplies, climate change mitigation and higher food prices as a result of diminished soil quality.
Arguably then, the 2008 organic market blip may not have happened if we had seen our role in the food system as something broader than the ‘consumer’ view of short-term self-interest.
“In the story of the citizen, we are gaining the power not just to choose, but to shape the choices on offer,” says Alexander. “We are starting to work together in interdependence, seeking not just what’s best for ourselves as individuals, but as communities and societies. It is the shift from ‘consumers complaining’ to ‘citizens reinventing structures from the ground up’.”
Examples of this shift in mindset can be seen across the country. The ‘allotment renaissance’ shows no sign of slowing – boosted by schemes by social enterprise LandShare and the National Trust among others – neither does the popularity of farmers’ markets. Meanwhile, local growing initiatives triggered by the likes of Transition Towns and Incredible Edible are attracting more people to grow their own, either individually or as a community.
I’m seeing the beginnings of a valuable debate on agriculture and ‘public goods’ that is long overdue
But just as things appear to be going in the right direction for organics, a political obstacle looms large on the horizon: Brexit.
“Brexit has injected an enormous amount of uncertainty into the UK’s farming industry,” says Crichton.
“The most obvious is the possible change in trade relationships with our European neighbours, combined with the unpredictability of future subsidy mechanisms. We’re also starting to see some issues with seasonal labour in the UK, which is of particular importance to fruit and veg growers who rely on this type of help.”
But there are potential upsides too.
“We see many areas that could surprise us if the right initiative is taken,” says Crichton.
“I’m seeing the beginnings of a valuable debate on agriculture and ‘public goods’ that is long overdue. As a society, we need to talk about how our agriculture sector is supporting good food and healthy communities, and Brexit could create the right environment for this debate. If that were to happen, the UK really could become a world leader in taking a more holistic approach to agriculture.”
4 members of the UK’s organic army:
Better Food Company
This Bristol-based retailer and cafe sells organic, local, and ethical food with an aim of making organic food accessible to all. It’s been running since 1992 when Phil Haughton set up an organic veg box scheme for people in the city. The business now has three shops and employs 120 people.
Triodos Bank only lends money to organisations that are ‘delivering social, cultural or environmental benefits’. Last year, its loans to the organic food sector throughout Europe created the equivalent of 32 million organic meals – enough for an estimated 29,000 people to eat organically for the year.
Hafod Cheese company
Hafod is a traditional hard cheese, handmade on Wales’ longest certified organic dairy farm, Bwlchwernen Fawr. For more than 40 years, organic principles have been combined with traditional techniques on the farm to turn milk from 75 Ayrshire cows into a rich, nutty cheese.
Haddon Copse Farm
Haddon Copse is a 30-acre organic farm in the heart of Dorset’s Blackmore Vale. The farm produces a range of Soil Association-certified organic meats under its brand name Angel Cottage Organics. The produce has won numerous taste awards.