12 June 1998

Organic producers

set their sights on

American markets

In the US, as in Europe,

organic food consumption

is gathering momentum and

UK producers are looking

to get a share of it.

Leonard Goymerac talked

to some of the UK firms at

the recent Natural Foods

Expo in Anaheim, California.

WITH 1300 exhibitors and 26,000 visitors, any doubts about the future of organic food and farming tend to wither as quickly as a honey and pecan icecream in the southern California sun. The Brits were here, too, in the shape of a Department of Trade and Industry outward mission designed to show off UK organic products to US and international buyers.

Richard Bosly, senior certification inspector of the UK-based Organic Food Federation said the show gave British organic producers a chance to show off its products. Moreover, he believes that Americans are interested in them too.

Paul Benham from the Hemp Foods Industries Association was promoting the use of hemp as a foods source. Hemp seeds, he explained, are used as a health food source in snack foods. The one problem is that older, more conservative Americans tend to look askance when anything related to marijuana use is mentioned.

On the horizon

Ray Green from the organics division of the California Department of Agriculture, confirms that the organic sector in the state is on the up and up. "The statistics show that over the last four years there has been a 25% increase each year in the size of US organic agriculture and I dont see anything on the horizon that could slow it in any way."

It now accounts for about 1% of the total value of farm produce sales nationally and US farmers are converting in large numbers. "I think the entire world is interested in sustainable agriculture," adds Mr Green, "so the natural step from sustainability and environmental friendliness is organic production. I would say right now, organic production has the attention of most everybody."

The area where interest is increasing fastest is in processed products and the ingredients that go into making them.

Whos buying organic food? "The demographics show that the majority of organic consumers in America are the Yuppies, who are now between the ages of forty and sixty years. Theyre affluent, they can afford to pay the premium price. Theyre healthy, theyre wealthy, and they want to live as long as they can."

On of the areas of greatest controversy is the government proposal to allow irradiated foods and those containing genetically-modified crops to still call themselves organic.

The organic industry is strongly opposed to this and consumers, too, are keen to keep food natural.

As well as the main food halls, there was a Fresh Ideas tent that attracted throngs of people to its displays of health drinks, organic chocolates and every foodstuff imaginable. Alvis Bros was there with its Lye Cross Farms organic cheeses.

Rupert Cyster, a certified organic inspector in the UK, was also there as a consultant to the Organic Food Federation. Ironically, his family farms 280ha (700 acres) conventionally, most of which is dairy and hops. Mr Cyster admits his father is coming round to the cause gradually. "Id love to see him go organic. I think Im winning him over slowly."

The attraction of the US organic market to UK farmers centres on its size, he says.

Outstripping supply

"There is more demand here than can be satisfied with what is currently being produced. From what Ive seen in Germany two weeks ago and then here in Anaheim, the demand for organic produce seems to be outstripping supply. There are customers out there who are prepared to pay a premium for organic because they believe its better for them. Some UK farmers are into it, but we must get more."

He worries, too, that UK farmers perception of the bureaucracy involved in converting is hampering the growth of the organic sector. "Inspectors have, for whatever reason, a reputation for interfering but thats the wrong way to look at it. Organic Inspectors are not men from the Ministry, they are people who are going to get you the authorisation to sell as organic and its a way for a farmer to get a premium for his products."

How do organic standards in the EU and UK compare? "In the United States, its a lot more fragmented. The standards are different state-by-state and region-by-region. There is no central coordinating body, which is why you get Food and Drink Administration (FDA) coming in and trying to write central standards and upsetting people."

Jane Lindley, marketing manager of Alvis Bros, explained that her firms production was supported by four dairy farms and a cheese-making facility. How did she think organic shows like this related to UK dairy producers?

"It will be good for dairy producers; lots of opportunities for those who are contemplating a change to organic methods. It takes about two years for the conversion, but theres lots of help to do that."

The consensus of opinion among UK Organic Food Federation members ended on a positive note, perhaps echoing Rupert Cysters statement regarding opportunity for UK farmers, "Demand at the moment for organic food is more than can be satisfied with what is currently being produced…"

Jane Lindley, from the UK organic cheese producer Alvis brothers, which has four dairy herds.

There were 1300 organic exhibitors at Natural Foods Expo, illustrating the striking growth of this sector.