Is organic food as wholesome as it looks?

Britons can’t get enough of organic – sales jumped 30% in 2005. But producers are struggling to meet demand, thereby threatening confidence in the sector, says Simon Wilson

What is organic' farming?

The exact criteria vary according to the type of produce. But generally, organic farming means using almost no chemical pesticides or fertilisers on cereal, fruit and vegetable crops, and rejecting all genetically modified crops. Instead, organic farmers seek to nurture a healthy, fertile soil through traditional methods of crop rotation. When it comes to processed foods, organic' means they contain no hydrogenated fats and no synthetic flavourings or additives. And when it comes to farming animals for meat and fisheries, organic methods mean that animals are reared in more natural, free-range conditions with a more natural diet, and without the use of the drugs that are routine in modern livestock farming.

Who decides what counts as organic?

Although organic food must meet legally defined criteria to qualify for the label, Britain is unique in that organic status is awarded by independent bodies rather than by government. The key player in the UK market is the Soil Association, which provides detailed information on all aspects of organic farming at Although it has rival licensing bodies in some of the areas it operates in, the Soil Association retains a good deal of credibility, in part due to its 60-year track record of promoting organic methods, and also because of its rigorous standards and definitions that always meet, and sometimes exceed, EU requirements. For example, if you buy an organic egg in the UK with the Soil Association seal of approval, it means the hen lived with a maximum of 500 other birds. Under EU definitions, it might have come from a hen living in a crowded shed with up to 9,000 others.

Why is organic food a good thing?

According to proponents, organic food tastes better and is safer because it avoids chemical sprays and, for example, food additives linked to asthma and heart disease. And in addition to promoting animal welfare, there is a great deal of evidence that organic methods generate greater biodiversity on farms where they are employed. But the jury is still out on whether organic food is actually better for you. In its most recent report, the Soil Association hailed 2005 as the first year in which "scientific proof of health benefits from organic food had a direct impact on the market" sales of organic milk jumped 10% when a much-publicised Danish study showed it contains higher levels of several vital nutrients.

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So who disagrees?

The UK government. Earlier this year, the UK's Food Standards Agency reported that organic milk is no healthier than ordinary milk. Even more strikingly, a new study by food scientists at Strathclyde University has found that organic chicken is actually less nutritious than battery-farmed birds because (due to the ban on vitamin supplements in their feed) the organic birds contain lower levels of health-boosting omega-3 fatty acids and anti-oxidants. Yet the Soil Association, which accredits organic poultry producers, says that the Strathclyde findings contradict the bulk of scientific evidence, which backs up producers' claims that organic chicken and other meats are more nutritious than intensively farmed products.

What's at stake in all this?

The reputation of a booming market. In 2005, Britons bought £1.6bn worth of organic food. That's a small slice (1.3%) of the UK groceries market, but it's a leap of 30% on 2004, compared to just 3% for the wider market. Sales at independent outlets rose faster than through big multiples

yet these days 75% of organic food is sold through supermarkets. At Tesco (click here to order a free company report), organic goods sales have soared 70% since it started stocking organics with the rest of its range, rather than in a separate section.

So what's the problem?

Rapid growth in demand for organic food risks undermining the market's credibility. First, it has led to a rise in fraud, involving everything from beef and salmon to eggs. Several shops have been prosecuted for passing off cheap, mass-produced food as organic produce and police are investigating claims that factory-farmed eggs from abroad are being illegally sold in the UK as free range or organic.

Second, the boom means UK producers cannot meet demand. Because it takes years rather than months to convert farmland to organic methods, retailers (especially supermarkets) will have no alternative but to air-freight more goods in. That risks undermining the whole argument for organics. The reasons for this are firstly that the kind of ethical consumers attracted to organics tend to be unimpressed by all the carbon-emitting food miles' racked up by non-local produce; and secondly because it is much harder to assess the standards of overseas farmers, increasing the possibility of a wider loss of confidence in the sector.

Organic food in numbers

The global market for organic food and drink was worth £16.7bn in 2005, a rise of £1.2bn. The biggest market is North America, followed by Europe, where Britain is the third-largest player after Germany and Italy. Two-thirds of the organic food sold in multiple retailers in the UK was sourced locally from our 4,000 organic farms. Farmers sold £129m worth of organic meat last year including 8.9 million table birds up 59% on 2004. The organic dairy market was worth slightly more at £130m and sales through producer-owned outlets, such as box schemes and farmers' markets, were worth £125m. The amount of farmland being converted to organic use rose last year for the first time in four years.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.