Organic food sales have fallen for the first time in a decade as the rising cost of living forces people to reconsider their priorities.
New research from Nielsen, presented at the Soil Association’s annual trade conference, showed sales fell 2.1% year-on-year after 10 years of steady growth.
But analysts said there is “still a long-term trend for sustainability”, which, coupled with long-awaited government support for nature-friendly farming, should continue to encourage farmers to maintain or convert to sustainable agriculture.
Most people buy organic food at least once a year, but these “light shoppers” have started to drift away. The majority of organic food (77%) is purchased by a dedicated core group (17% of the population), but these so-called “intensive buyers” are also starting to cut back on what they buy organic.
Other new research presented at the event, based on a survey of 1,000 people, found that more than half of respondents warn that the rising cost of living is impacting their ability to buy sustainably (59%).
According to the survey by research firm The Crow Flies.
Speaking at the conference, Mike Watkins, Business Intelligence Manager at Nielsen, said: “There is always a long-term trend towards sustainability. And buyers need to recognize the value of organic in the face of nature and climate crises.
“People understand the term energy crisis; they need to understand that there is also a food security crisis and that we need to change the way we farm to mitigate climate and nature decline.
He also said there was a perceived higher price around organic, when in reality the price difference is less than shoppers believe on some items. People generally buy organic foods for taste and health reasons, rather than treating them as a luxury, he added.
Chief Executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, Sue Pritchard, said: ‘This is a disappointing if hardly surprising result in a cost of living crisis that is developing. worsen. People have to make hard choices.
“We know that organic farmers very often have higher costs than conventional farmers, whose business models often allow them to pass the true costs of their business onto the environment – only to be recovered elsewhere by the taxpayer. . It’s another reminder that healthy, sustainably produced food must become good business for everyone.
“Now would be a very good time for governments to use their purchasing power, through public procurement, both to support the sector and to set ambitious targets for healthy, organic food on school plates. and hospitals”.
“The shift to buying more sustainable and healthy products is a trend that is here to stay and we want to help farmers make the transition to organic and more nature-friendly farming, which is so crucial for our future in all,” said Lee Holdstock, senior director of supply chain development at the Soil Association.
“We also hope that Defra will have more positive news on ELMS in the coming weeks, which will provide real incentives for farmers and their businesses in the long term.”
Holdstock said the organic food market is significantly larger than it was in 2019 and the number of farms beginning the transition to organic is growing.
“The market is certainly not immune to the cost of living crisis and it is inevitable that sales will be hit by even the most committed organic customers cutting back during these difficult times, but it is really time to keep our cool,” he said. said.
The research figures presented were only based on food sold in supermarkets or other retailers, such as box systems, while many farmers sell direct to consumers and would not be included.
While organic farming is the biggest certification guaranteeing sustainable agriculture, there is also a huge wave of interest from farmers in what is called “regenerative agriculture”. It is not an official term but has allowed farmers to reduce the cost and use of fertilizers and animal feeds by replacing them with natural plant fertility and a greater reliance on soil health.