By Helen Browning
The end of that "middle class fad" – organic food – will be the cry from pundits feeding on reports of a decline in sales. But are the buyers of organic produce really that fickle? I think not.
Firstly, it's worth remembering that we have had other recessions in the century-long history of the organic movement. Yet over this time, and especially in the past 20 years, there has been consistent growth, as people have come to see the flaws in the structure and practices of the global food industry.
Yes, there has been the occasional plateau in growth. There have also been years of explosive expansion at other times, when BSE reared its head, for example, and as genetic engineering hits the headlines. These are times when society queries hard the "advantages" of cheap food, and the "advantages" of global agri-business strengthening its armlock over food supplies and producers.
Despite this track record, could this economic downturn really be the end of the road for organic? As incomes tighten for a period, do people really revise their values and prioritise a new iPod, a pair of shoes, a smart car, over feeding their families better food? Very unlikely.
Has the ethical consumer disappeared overnight – the same consumer that got so much media limelight just months ago? What nonsense. The ethical shopping market is now estimated at £5.4bn, with 80% of us active in it, compared to just 20% a few years ago.
Ethical shoppers are not just middle-class faddists. The assumptions that those on lower incomes just don't care about better food anymore, or the health of farm animals, or our environment, are hideously patronising.
Organic food is such an easy target at times like this. It is often more expensive, in terms of the pound in your purse, in the industrialised world. But it is not so in developing nations, where organic-based techniques of soil care, crop rotation and natural fertility-building are often the most effective, safe, productive and resilient ways of producing nutritious food for the local population.
Here, cheap oil and gas is the basis of the fertiliser and the big machinery agri-business relies on. That's the key reason conventional food seems so inexpensive (we spend, on average, only 10%-12% of our disposable income on food, the stuff of life!).
The real cost is borne by the animals in their confinement, the environment in its degradation, and the population generally as the efficacy of antibiotics, for example, is potentially reduced due to their overuse to keep stressed animals healthy. Pretty expensive cheap food, you might think. And food that, while plentiful enough to keep most of us alive longer, appears to carry various other costs to our own health, such as obesity, malnutrition and heart disease.
You must also ask what happens if fossil fuels continue on their apparently inexorable rising cost curve? Organic food will start to look like a cost-effective option – it already uses 26% less energy on average. Even now the price gap between organic and conventional food is narrowing. Organic may even become a necessity, never mind a luxury. And there are plenty of options open to the organic shopper on a budget: direct from producers, seasonally bought, or using farmers markets, organic products can be cheaper already than conventional stuff bought in the main retailers.
As a farmer myself, I am nervous about the confusions in the market place at the moment. A dismal summer, rising feed costs (for my pigs and dairy cows), endless promotions on retailers' shelves – it all means erratic sales. But our own experience is that people still want great quality and real provenance. I also believe that the day-to-day pleasures of eating wonderful food are even more enjoyable during more difficult economic times.
We may see, and are seeing, some flattening of organic sales in the short term, but if as farmers we strive to achieve the highest standards in husbandry and quality and honesty, I believe that society will continue to buy into the fruits of our labour. Our customers are not as daft as some would make out.
· Helen Browning is food and farming director at the Soil Association and an organic farmer in north Wiltshire.