By Michael McCarthy, Environment
THE CONTROVERSY over genetically modified
food has led to an unprecedented surge in the sale
of organic food, The Independent has found.
A survey of major retailers shows that two of the
country's leading supermarkets - Tesco and Asda -
recorded around a 20 per cent increase in sales for
February, compared to January.
Tesco's organic food buyer, Andrew Sellick, said:
"The upsurge in February was nothing short of
phenomenal, and it is the awareness of the GM
issue which has pushed the rate of sales."
A third supermarket, Sainsbury's, was able to give
precise sales figures. They showed that organic
sales were worth £6.7m last month, compared to
£5.8m in January - a 15.5 per cent rise.
In some medium-sized food retailers, who have
come later to the organic market and do not yet
have extensive product lines, the February sales
were even more spectacular. Marks and Spencer
said its increase was "more than 100 per cent."
Iceland, which has a small number of organic frozen
foods, saw a 42 per cent increase.
Organic vegetables, fruits and cereals are grown
without any pesticides or artificial fertilisers - natural
methods such as crop rotation take their place -
while livestock and poultry are raised without
intensive farming techniques. All organic food is
guaranteed to be non-genetically-modified. Farmers
must spend two years converting their land before it
can be organically certified.
Organic carrots or apples do not look as perfect
and regular as the products of large-scale
agribusiness. The production techniques are also
more laborious production and the costs greater.
It is only the lack of available produce which is at
present holding demand back, as 70 per cent of the
organic food sold in Britain has to be imported.
Less than one per cent of farmland here is
organically managed, by fewer than 2,000 farmers,
while Germany, Austria, Sweden and Denmark are
all aiming to have ten per cent by next year.
Nevertheless the market is experiencing runaway
growth of 40 per cent a year. Tesco is Britain's
largest food retailer with more than 15 per cent of
the UK grocery market, and has more than 200
organic lines from potatoes to yoghurt, with more to
be put on the shelves next month.
The company sold £35m worth of organic food in
the twelve months to 1 March, more than double
the amount in the previous year. But in the next
twelve months the company estimates it will sell
UK sales of organic food as a whole have risen
from under £100m annually in 1993, to £260m in
1997 and about £400m last year. And it is possible
the £1bn barrier for the UK will be broken next
year, according to Simon Brenman, manager of
producer services for The Soil Association, the
principal organic food and farming pressure group.
Senior food industry figures had no hesitation in
ascribing February's remarkable extra sales surge to
the GM controversy, which intensified in the course
of the month with several newspapers running
anti-GM campaigns, Tony Blair being challenged on
the issue in the Commons by William Hague, and
renewed argument about the work of the
controversial GM researcher Arpad Puzstai.
One of the most striking instances of sales growth
last month was in organic baby food. Baby
Organix, Britain's only organic babyfood
manufacurer, which supplies to Tesco, Sainsbury's,
Safeway, Waitrose and Boots, had its best month
ever in February: its sales were 24 per cent higher
than the month before.
'I know this is down to the GM controversy," said
the company's founder and managing director,
"People feel they won't compromise with their
babies. If a woman's pregnant and she's given up
drinking and smoking, when she gets the baby she's
not going to start fooling around with its food."
Calls to the company's freefone helpline increased
from 300 a week at the start of February to 1,200
a week in the middle of the month and are now
running at 800 a week.
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