There is no denying it; the organic market is on the slide. The rate of decline may have slowed from about 15% last year to perhaps 8% (depends on what you are measuring) but it is still slipping. The reason for organic’s fall from favour, according to marketing pundits quoted in last week’s Grocer magazine, is that we have failed to communicate a simple, emotionally engaging message.
Another way of putting it is that we have been too honest and perhaps too ambitious in wanting to solve all the world’s problems. Environmental and ethical issues are never simple. Organic farming embraces more than can be squeezed into a soundbite: the balance of wildlife and biodiversity benefits, animal welfare, absence of pesticide residues in our food, reduced CO2 emissions, severe restrictions on additives and arguably flavour and nutritional quality is just too much to convey in one snappy slogan.
Single issue products, whether fair trade, free range, “pesticide-free” or local, have proved easier to sell, despite their silence on other issues. For example a “free range” chicken may spend next to no time outside, be kept in a shed the size of an aircraft hangar, in a sea of mud with tens of thousands of others at a stocking density double that allowed by the Soil Association, be routinely de-beaked and fed antibiotics. Its rations will be produced with the aid of pesticides and fertilisers but none of this is a barrier to conveying a simple emotionally engaging message. In marketing terms, it takes too many words to explain that organic poultry offers so much more.
I would never claim that organic farming is the only answer, but after twenty five years of unceasingly questioning what we do, I am convinced that it comes closer than anything else. Organic is better regulated and has stood the test of time (since 1946), whilst other wannabe brands and claims have come and gone. Our complex proposition may be hard to convey, but that is because it has so much more to offer. We have our book of rules but behind them is a philosophical commitment, shared by farmers and customers, to finding a better way to happily coexist with 7 billion others without destroying the planet we share; probably too much for a simple marketing slogan but ultimately more durable.
Guy Watson from Riverford in Devon