Is organic worth it?

 

Despite the recession and a belief that they’re more expensive, sales of organic food are up 16 per cent on last year – and that’s on top of price-cutting and increased competition, writes CONOR POPE

IT’S BEEN a tough year for organic food producers. As if convincing people to spend a little more on food in the middle of a full-blown depression wasn’t hard enough, they’ve also had to combat a headline-generating scientific report which was published this summer casting doubt on the nutritional benefits of their produce.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, acting at the behest of the British government’s Food Standards Agency, found that consumers were paying higher prices for organic food partly because they believed it had health benefits. After carrying out a review of 162 scientific papers published over 50 years, however, the researchers found there to be no significant difference.

“A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance,” says Alan Dangour, one of the report’s authors. “Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.”

Organic food campaigners immediately countered by saying the researchers did not take into account the health effects of pesticides and other contaminants found in some foods. They highlighted the fact that the absence of pesticides is the single most important reason why people in Ireland continue to be drawn towards organic food in the face of downturns and downbeat scientific assessments.

At least the organic producers will be able to draw breath and bask in some positive publicity this week as National Organic Food Week continues.

Lorcan Bourke heads up Bord Bia’s Organic Marketing Development Group. Given his brief, it is hardly surprising that he neatly sidesteps questions over organic food’s nutritional superiority and value for money.

“All I can really say is that there are a lot of studies and a lot of very contradictory findings. The only thing I can say with any degree of certainty is that the number one reason people tell us they buy organic is the pesticide issue. It is the most regulated area of farming and consumers are buying into the ‘free from’ aspect.”

But it must be tough to convince people to buy organic when they are struggling to make ends meet in many aspects of their lives?

In the UK there has been a sharp rate of decline in the popularity of organic food over the last 18 months as people concentrate on budget shops. One of the problems in the UK has been the fickle nature of organic buyers, while Irish shoppers tend to become hardened converts, Britain’s are more prone to dip in and out of the sector, Bourke says.

There is, Burke accepts, a degree of price sensitivity on evidence now. People who would have happily paid up to 25 per cent more for food because it was organic are now saying that price gaps of more than 10 per cent are a big turn off. There is, however, “a strong cohort who will pay whatever is necessary for organic food”.

That cohort is keeping the sector in Ireland surprisingly buoyant. According to new research from Bord Bia, the value of organic sales in Ireland increased by 13 per cent in the year to July. In the first seven months of this year sales reached €124 million compared to €104 million over the same period last year – a 16 per cent rise.

The research also showed that 73 per cent of Irish grocery shoppers purchased an organic product in the last month, with fruit, vegetables and dairy products accounting for the most popular purchased categories.

But how much more are people prepared to pay for organic food? Bord Bia asked that question last year and found that 47 per cent of all consumers would “definitely” or “probably” buy organic if a 10 per cent premium is charged but, if the price differential between organic and conventional produce is any bigger, interest tails off dramatically.

“The big problem now across the board is that there is less money in people’s pockets. People have lost their jobs and that forces them to make real decisions at the point of sale,” says Burke.

Darren Grant is an ex-Dell worker who opened the Organic Supermarket in Blackrock, Co Dublin in July last year “on the day the recession was announced”.

Despite his poor timing, he says business has boomed through the bust. “We have seen a 45 per cent increase in trade in the last year. People have started to realise the true value of food and, instead of buying expensive ready meals, they are buying the raw ingredients.”

The store has an organic version of everything and claims to be the only exclusively organic supermarket in the State. “We want to bring organic food to the masses. In the past it was seen as elitist,” says Grant.

The buyers at Lidl and Aldi would hardly agree and for quite some time both discount stores have shown a healthy appetite to increase the range of organic foods to be found on their shelves. Both stores recognise there is a market for organic produce and both are prepared to sell at comparatively low prices to bring people through their doors.

TO MARK NATIONAL ORGANIC WEEK, Lidl has gone a step further and slashed the price of its organic food. Its organic carrots are €0.85 a kilo compared with a normal price of €1.66 while dozens of other items are selling at half price in the store for the rest of the week.

While Aldi hasn’t gone quite as far as Lidl this week, it is still selling organic food at knock-down prices and cheap as chips organic vegetables are also on offer in Tesco where price-matching with the German discounters seems to be the order of the day.

The Organic Supermarket may not be able to quite match the big boys price for price, but it does bring something unique to market. “Our lettuce is picked at 6am in Wicklow and on our shelves at 8am, so it’s as fresh as it can be and there’s no food miles to worry about either,” says Grant.