For millions of years all food and drink was organic. The cavemen, the Victorians and your great-grandparents didn’t call it organic food – they just called it food.
But then in the early 20th century somebody had the idea of adding chemicals to soil, sprays and livestock to enhance crop growth and selectively breed animals.
The next 100 years saw the rise of designer carrots, cheez whiz, milkshakes with 50 ingredients, the potted meat food product and the multipack of booze.
But then Britons found themselves buzzing on E numbers and three stone heavier than their grandparents were and the backlash began.
Sales of organic food and drink soared during the noughties, rising from £800 million in 2000 to £2.1 billion in 2008, as drinkers across the land said things like: “Fabulous beer – complements to your dung heap.”
But then the recession hit. As household incomes dwindled shoppers started to worry that stores were divided into two categories – organic products, and things they could afford.
Sales of organic produce have fallen ever since and now stand at just £1.64 billion in 2012, according to the Soil Association.
But after five years of hurt organic suppliers think the pendulum may finally have swung back in their favour – thanks to horsemeat.
“Following the recent horsemeat scandal, demand for organic products went up by 8% and that’s not just burgers – it went up across many lines of food and drink,” says Neil Palmer, director at Vintage Roots, which supplies wine, beer, cider and spirits to the UK off-trade with one caveat – it must all be organic.
“The organic drinks market will resurge as it has many times before. We believe in the products and think organic is the way forward,” he adds. “Why wouldn’t you like an organic drink, as long as the quality is there?”
The quality seems to be constantly improving. At the International Cider Challenge 2013 the judging panel of expert writers, supermarket buyers and independent retailers raved about organic ciders.
Waitrose buyer Oliver O’Hara said they were “outstanding”, Rosie Norwood of Cheltenham’s Favourite Beers – Independent Cider Retailer of the Year at the 2013 Drinks Retailing Awards – said she would love to stock many of them, and the category ended up with a trophy for Cidre Bigoud’s Artisanal Le Brun Organic and gold medals for Westons Wyld Wood, Dunkertons Black Fox and Dunkertons Premium.
Abi Evans, off-trade marketing manager at Westons, says: “We have been producing organic cider for more than 15 years and organic comes straight from the heart of our values. It illustrates our deep ongoing passion for only producing the best quality cider and our respect for nature and wildlife.
“We consider the impact on the environment in all that we do. We nurture our existing orchards and have been planting new organic apples trees, working with the Soil Association and The Wildlife Trust. This is an initiative we believe firmly in continuing with and will do so for the foreseeable future.
“Despite the relative neglect of our policy makers and some supermarkets, there is much cause for optimism in the success of specialist retailers, the enthusiasm of young shoppers and the long-overdue questions being asked about our reliance on cheap, low-quality, untraceable food in the wake of the horsemeat crisis. It may be difficult to anticipate precisely when the UK organic market will return to growth, but we can predict increasingly confidently that it will do so.”
Price remains a barrier as the economic gloom that has gripped Britain since 2008 shows no sign of relenting.
Bill Simmons, off-trade controller at Fuller’s supplies the UK’s bestselling organic beer Honey Dew, says: “Generally speaking the consumer will expect to pay more for an organic version of a product than a non-organic equivalent.”
Palmer admits interest in organic products among supermarkets has waned as the credit crunch lingers but believes independent retailers could hold the key to the future of organic wine.
Yet he does not think organic means customers have to pay a premium, adding: “We should be discussing value rather than price for the sake of it. Many of our wines are great value when you consider the quality you are getting.
“Organic drinks will never be the cheapest in any range though and possibly the way to consider it is that non-organic drinks can often be subsidised by chemicals and big production techniques.”
Evans believes price promotions are the most important factor in reviving the organic market.
“In the current market, the cost-conscious consumer needs a helping hand,” she says. “But this kind of activity does not come cheap and cannot go on forever.”
Simmons is not worried that organic sales have dwindled in recent years, because he believes the organic revolution was the precursor to a new era of consumers wanting local produce with provenance.
He says: “Provenance is a key word you hear everywhere and the links between organic, the slow food movement and provenance awareness have all contributed to the consumer’s affinity with organic.”
This is especially true among younger consumers. The Soil Association Market Report 2013 says that shoppers aged 35 and under significantly increased their average spending on organic products in 2012, pointing to a healthy future for the organic market.
The UK population is set to continue to grow in size and thirst, so it is doubtful we will ever refer to organic drinks as simply “drinks”, but the signs are more positive for organic suppliers than they have been for several years.
They must all be hoping more people discover that their lunch won the 3.15 at Lingfield.