Organics moves one step from the margins into the mainstream

Picture this: the Royal Highland Show, the Scottish Government Pavilion. Organic snacks, a display of beautiful Scottish organic produce from across the sectors. A handful of presenters from key operators including Scotland Food & Drink, talking about how they could support growing the organic sector.

The occasion was the launch of a new report‘Pointing the way to a Scottish Organic Action Plan 2022: Work in progress’ – from the Scottish Organic Stakeholders Group. More than sixty food & drink agencies, non-governmental organisations, trade unions, local authorities, large and small producers in all sectors, wholesalers and retailers have been meeting to discuss Scotland’s organic opportunity to meet growing market demand while also delivering for climate and nature. The report makes concrete recommendations as to what needs to be done by the food & drink sector to move organics from the margins to the mainstream and how the Scottish Government can lead and support the change.

The report recommends action in four areas: how the processes of converting to organics can be made easier; how public procurement of organic food can lead the way by establishing supply chains and markets for organic produce; the sector’s opportunities to increase production along with both domestic sales and export; and how research, training and information services can support the sector’s growth.

For organics to be mainstreamed, a culture shift is needed. ‘Mainstreaming’ means establishing something as normal, accepted, recognized, common, usual, prevailing, and popular. It means including it in the everyday by providing people with the choice and opportunities to buy it, grow it, sell it, learn about it, procure it, …. It means proactively providing access to it and building partnerships and policies that facilitate that. It means shifting people’s attitudes to it by changing the ways we communicate about it.

It is not surprising then that the strongest recommendation that spans all four themes in the report is the need for the Scottish Government to work with the sector to change the messaging: to communicate to the public what organics is and what it does; and to steer the way forward for organics by clarifying what its potential role can be in a range of contexts; and by including it explicitly in discussions about farming and fishing, nature and climate, animal welfare, health and well-being, etc. The rest of us can then follow. There are a further set of key asks that then facilitate ways forward from there: For the Scottish Government to produce a plan; to establish an Organic Growth Hub linked to organic development posts in a handful of key operators in the food & drink sector; and to integrate organics in research, training, and farm advisory services.

We need to work on our nature and climate challenges, restore biodiversity and reduce our emissions, as a matter of urgency. Organic farms show higher biodiversity and lower greenhouse gas emissions, both per hectare and for some products per kilo. Amongst ‘regenerative’ agricultural methods, organics is the only scientifically defined, certified, and monitored method. It is therefore, according to the EU Farm to Fork strategy, the gold standard to which everybody should be working. Clearly, organics is one of the tools that the Scottish Government can use to help achieve important targets in a range of policy areas.

Meanwhile, consumer demand for organic foods has risen every year since 2009 and the Scottish Food & Drink Partnership’s Knowledge Bank tells us that nearly 1/3 of Scottish shoppers are ‘eco-actives’. Yet, the production of organic foods in Scotland is falling. We are importing more of it every year to meet the growing demand. We are missing a trick.

The Royal Highland Show event was a promising step towards mainstreaming organics in Scotland. We look forward to working with Government and stakeholders to deliver the report’s recommendations and we trust that we are on track for some much-needed big next steps.