Is organic food better for you and does it cost more?

Fuelled by increasing interest in ‘wellness’ and holistic living, organic food saw an explosive rise in popularity in the early- to mid-2000s. The trend took a downturn following the economic crash of 2007, but more than a decade later it’s clear that organic food is no longer simply a ‘trend’. The organic market has bounced back with vigour due to increasing health and environmental concerns and has firmly established itself as a cornerstone of the UK’s food system.

According to the Soil Association Certification’s Organic Market Report 2021, the UK’s organic market is now worth £2.79 billion after seeing a 12.6% rise in sales in 2020. This ninth consecutive year of growth is marked jump on the previous year’s reporting period, which saw sales of organic food and drink up by a comparatively smaller 2.5%. The Soil Association says organic food is now outperforming the non-organic sector in terms of growth, and is expected to reach £2.9 billion by the end of 2021.

So what’s driving this appetite for organic food? There are several factors at play. While it’s true that its initial popularity was driven by a narrative around health benefits, there remains a lack of peer-reviewed medical studies demonstrating a firm link between organic food and increased health (even the Soil Association – the biggest champion of organic food – is careful not to espouse too much health-related rhetoric on its website). What is known, though, is that those who make a point of buying organic food are more likely to pay attention to their diet and ensure an ample intake of fruit and veg, which, by extension, creates an altogether healthier lifestyle.

The health argument continues to play a major role in creating awareness of organic food, but as the challenges of the past year have shown, consumers are now more likely to opt for organics because of the environmental angle. During 2020 more than £50 million per week was spent on organic food and drink in the UK as people spent more time at home preparing and planning meals, and as lockdowns and the pandemic forced a reappraisal of climate change and human influence on the planet.

This is great news for the climate narrative – more so in light of the recently-published National Food Strategy, which calls for urgent changes to the UK’s current food system (including a focus on organic farming practices) if we’re to ensure a healthy and equitable food future for everyone.

But there are challenges afoot. Climate change is causing unseasonably hot weather, which has already impacted harvest yields, while Brexit has led to export obstacles and a shortage of seasonal workers. These factors could result in further price increases for all food supplies but especially organic food – exacerbating the main barrier to entry for many consumers.

Organic food is typically more expensive that non-organic for several reasons. Production is more expensive for farmers, demand is rising faster than supply, and supermarkets are liable to charge more as organic food is positioned as a premium product.

However, a number of analyses have shown that making the switch to organic produce doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive. While some organic items come with huge mark-ups compared to their non-organic counterparts (an organic chicken costs an average £10.97 compared to £3.35, for example), the higher cost of others is negligible. A tub of organic white mushrooms is typically only 1% more expensive than the regular kind, for instance, while a pack of organic salted butter is around 30p more expensive. Organic milk and onions have similarly low additional costs.

In fact, researchers suggest that swapping just three or four items for their organic alternatives in a grocery shop each week could cost as little as 93p more.

But while it’s possible that the price of organic produce will increase slightly in the coming months – driven most likely by trade issues caused by Brexit – some findings suggest that prices will go down in the longer term as climate awareness and COVID-19 have prompted a greater interest in British food and more emphasis on local products.

Additionally, sweeping reforms to the UK’s agricultural policies could make organics more attractive to British farmers. The new system, named Environmental Land Management (ELM), will give grants and subsidies to farmers who take steps to support the environment through landscape recovery, restoring peatlands, reducing the use of antibiotics and pesticides, and improving animal health and welfare – all central to organic principles.

The bottom line

Organic produce is becoming increasingly popular with consumers, and market analysis suggests the sector is set to grow significantly in the coming years. If farming bodies, supermarkets and government officials are able to work together to support the production of organic food and make it more accessible to all, then we could be on the cusp of a much more sustainable food system that works for everyone without putting needless strain on the planet.

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