Organic is moving swiftly from niche markets to the mainstream

Policy-makers are failing to keep up with consumer demand for organic produce

Organic food is increasingly in demand
Organic food is increasingly in demand
Grace Maher

Grace Maher

Consumer demand for organic food is increasing globally and is worth in excess of €75bn, with all the main markets growing in double digits.

Just last week Sweden released figures showing that demand for organic food increased by more than 40pc in 2016, and this is an important market for Irish organic product.

Worldwide more farmers cultivate organically and consequently the land area certified has also risen to over 50 million hectares. However, despite all of the evidence to the contrary organic is seen by some as a niche market.

Organic products of all kinds can now be found in most kitchens and households around the country indicating just how mainstream organic has become.

Numerous studies have been conducted globally on the buying habits and demographics of consumers of organic food with a few key themes emerging.

Consumers like organically produced food because of their concerns regarding health, the environment and animal welfare, and their purchasing habits confirm a willingness to pay the price premiums established in the marketplace.

While there are obvious differences in shopping patterns across the globe the "entry categories" to organics are the same, fruit, vegetables, dairy products and eggs dominate all the major markets.

In the United States $15.6bn (€13bn) worth of fruit and vegetables were sold in 2016, constituting over 40pc of the entire sales of organic food.

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Here in Ireland according to Bord Bia research, sales of fruit and vegetables make up 34pc of the organic market. This is good news for Irish growers who are experiencing increasing demand for the crops they are growing and climatically 2017 has been a good year for growing horticulture crops.

The challenge with increased demand for horticulture products is the ability to supply the market. In Ireland we import almost 70pc of organic fruit and vegetables sold here, that is something that must change.

Like most other countries the main threat to the continued growth of the Irish organic market is not that consumers will stop purchasing organic food, it is that demand is seriously beginning to out-strip supply.

There are real opportunities for growers, both established growers and new entrants to substitute imports.

As students begin making their college choices demand for agriculture courses remains strong.

A career in horticulture is very specialised and it can be difficult to attract people to the industry as it demands long hours, and requires high labour costs as it is labour intensive.

There are no degree courses available in organic farming or horticulture in this country which limits those choosing to go into the sector.

Despite that it is one of the major growth areas in food production.

Many people purchase food based on a value system, and organic food fits well with consumer values, and retailers are taking note.

So too should policy makers and farmers - we need more organic farmers and we need the government to put a structure in place to support farmers who make the choice to farm organically.

With an uncertain future looming due to Brexit we would be wise to look at where opportunities lie in agriculture, and our continued dependence on importing horticulture crops both organic and conventional to meet domestic demand is clearly not sustainable.

Local supply is important to Irish consumers and we must ensure that continuity of supply is available in the variety of retail outlets used by growers to sell their produce.

Grace Maher is development officer with the IOFGA,

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