According to the Soil Association, which certifies organic food, sales in Scotland have risen nearly six per cent over the last year. There has been a smaller four per cent rise in the rest of the UK.
The increase is attributed to growing disillusionment with conventionally produced food in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, which saw two men arrested last week. Improving economic conditions, better marketing and the arrival of popular new stores like Whole Foods Market from the US have also helped.
The latest figures, released today, show that over 12 weeks to 9 June, spending on organic food in Scotland was £13.4 million. This compares to spending of £12.7 million in the same period last year.
Spending in the rest of the UK for the same period has risen from £179.9 million in 2012 to £187.4 million in 2013. This follows four years in which the total annual UK spending on organic food fell 22% from a peak in 2008.
“It’s fantastic news that organic spend is back on the increase in Scotland,” said Laura Stewart, director of the Soil Association in Scotland. “These figures prove people want to know where their food comes from and at the same time care about the environment and animal welfare.”
She believed that customers were increasingly making purchasing decisions based on their awareness of health and environment problems. “The horsemeat scandal has also inevitably had a knock on effect on organic sales,” she argued.
“The importance of traceability and food provenance is now at the top of many people’s agendas and organic produce delivers the reassurance they are looking for.”
Stewart pointed out, though, that Scotland still had a long way to go to reach the same level as Denmark, which spends ten times more on organic food. “As a nation we are on a food journey but at least we're heading in the right direction,” she said.
One of the biggest rises over the last year has been in organic baked goods, up by 32%. Organic canned goods have increased by 21%, chilled convenience foods by 18% and savoury home cooking by 17%.
Dairy produce like milk, butter and cheese have the biggest share of the organic market in Scotland at around a third. Over a quarter of all the fruit, vegetables and salads sold are also organic.
This month, the Soil Association is launching a campaign to promote organic food under the banner ‘small changes, big difference’. Major UK supermarkets have signed up and will be promoting organic products in store.
The aim is to persuade consumers to make small changes in their shopping habits to make a big difference to sustainable food, animal welfare and the environment. “If twenty families switched to organic milk, another cow will be free to range on clover rich organic pastures,” suggested Stewart.
The association’s annual reports on the organic food market across the UK show that sales rose sevenfold in seven years from £140 million in 1995 to £1 billion in 2001. They then doubled over the next six years to £2.1 billion in 2008, but have since steadily dropped to £1.64 billion in 2012.
The Soil Association’s hope is that the latest snapshot of buying patterns from March to June this year presages an end to the organic downturn. Others, however, sound a more cautious note.
“It will be good if we see something of a bounce-back in organic sales in Scotland and the UK - the sector has had a rough ride,” said James Withers, chief executive of Scottish Food and Drink, an agency backed by government and industry.
“However, the latest figures also reflect a general rise in year on year retail sales, so it’s probably too early to draw major conclusions. The organic market has real potential for Scottish producers, particularly internationally.”
Withers, former head of the National Union of Farmers in Scotland, pointed out that food and drink exports had risen 50% in the last five years. “Whilst organic sales at home have dipped, we’re still seeing double digit-growth in emerging economies like Brazil and China,” he said.
The environment minister, Richard Lochhead, pointed out that organic food and drink brought economic and environmental benefits to Scotland. “The Scottish government wants to help grow the sector, so it is great news that sales are on the rise,” he said.