The price of organic food

Helen Browning - 28 September 2011

One of the key pillars of our refreshed strategy is ‘Good Food for All’. By this we mean that we are committed to ensure that organic, seasonal, healthy food is accessible to everyone.

For many people, one of the biggest perceived barriers to accessibility of organic food is the price. If we are to be successful we need to tackle issues like the organic price premium and other barriers to access head on. One aspect of this is to ensure that fair prices are paid for organic food according to the cost of production not as an automatic premium.

We also want to examine the cost of organic food and challenge people’s assumptions that it will automatically be more expensive. As an example, last week we conducted our own price survey of an average shopping basket, at Tesco, Asda and Sainsburys, including staples such as milk, bread, eggs, mince, cheese, apples and carrots.

We found that some organic items such as olive oil, pasta and baking potatoes were the same price or less than non-organic, even without special offers, and overall an average organic shopping basket was only 4.4% more expensive than a non-organic basket of equivalent products with offers included. Perhaps not quite as expensive as some of us may have expected.

As it is Organic September there has been lots of promotional activity around organic products in the last few weeks. If you don’t include the effect of these offers, the organic products are up to 15.9% more expensive – a premium for sure but again perhaps less then you might have guessed. What’s more, previous research by the Organic Trade Board [Does organic always mean more expensive?, Feb 2010] found that, compared against premium non-organic brands, the organic option is often more affordable.

The bottom line is that organic food is only 4-16% more expensive when compared to own brand supermarket food and it is significantly less expensive when compared with well known household brands such as Warburtons, Kelloggs and Lurpak. In this supposed ‘age of austerity’ it seems that people are continuing to spend more on premium and luxury food items when they could actually choose organic for less. This survey is the beginning of a more regular look at pricing structures which we hope will demonstrate the increasing affordability of organic food.

Finally, as we come to the end of Organic September, lots of organic businesses and supermarkets are still offering great deals on organic products – so if you usually ignore the organic options because you think it’s too expensive now is a great time to give it a go.

Helen Browning is the Soil Association's Chief Executive, and also is an organic farmer - she runs a 1,350 acre organic livestock and arable farm in Wiltshire. Her sausages and bacon can be found in the supermarkets, and her versatile team also run the village pub! Previously Director of External Affairs at the National Trust, Helen is also chair of the Food Ethics Council and was awarded an OBE in 1998 for services to organic farming.

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29 September 2011 17:22

I can't help thinking that for as long as this debate remains about price organic will be an easy target for anyone or anyone who doesn't want to pay it - most people. Once upon a time we didn't have mobile phones, try separating us from them now - cost, what cost? It's life and death for some and interdependence for others. A neighbour passed a surplus bag of green beans across the fence at the weekend that he'd grown on his railside allotment, he's green fingered and green minded as are many of the urban farmers in our neck of the woods. I'm not saying they were organic (past tense, we scoffed the lot and delicious they were too) but they were local, natural, hand grown and free. Apples are brought into the office because visitors know that we make pies and bake bread (yes organic usually). It's our attitude to food that organic can change, it needs to mean human again, this is where i believe organic can lead - the value add is the new relationships you build with people you barely knew till you broke bread with them. I like organic people. They're smart and they are friendly and we'll need lots more of that in the not very distant future. All the best.

Little Hils
28 September 2011 21:06

I think it all comes down to priority. People spend much less of their disposable income (as a %) on food than in the past... choosing I guess to prioritise ipods, new phones, clothes etc instead. And yet how important is what we put inside our bodies? ... we get out what we put in! I personally have found eating more organic, healthy food means I don't have to take vitamins, supplements and medicines any more - saving lots of money! We should be choosing quality over quantity... and then we could all easily afford organic (and local) food. However people need to re-learn how to prepare food from scratch rather than buying 'cheap' convenience, processed, industrial foods. We also should look at the indirect costs involved in manufacturing non-organic food; pollution, soil erosion, forest degradation, loss of wildlife habitat etc.... processed, industrial food is basically subsidised by the government (to help their corporation buddies), with the end price to the consumer being a lie that can't continue. There's so many issues and as many reasons to go organic! Thanks SA for starting to investigate this issue and for all the good work you do!

Thorvin Kelp
28 September 2011 13:28

As the number of consumers for organic products increases and the number of farmers switching from conventional to organic farming increases, the price of organic products will go down.

Elisabeth Winkler
28 September 2011 12:43

Hi JimJust to clarify what I meant by "solar powered organic farming": organic farming bans artificial fertiliser which is totally oil-dependent.In contrast, organic farming uses biological processes - such as rotations, composting green and animal waste and nitrogen-rich crops - to fertilise the soil. These are all, if you like "solar powered."These natural biological processes are not as far as I know subsidised...

Anna Louise Batchelor
28 September 2011 12:01

I really welcome the Soil Associations theme 'Good Food For All'. Discussions around cost as a barrier to organic food are really useful. Comparing prices across the supermarkets is really insightful but it is really useful to look at independents and box schemes too. Many independent growers, producers and retailers offer great value, especially with seasonal produce. I also look forward to further work the Association is to undertake with the Making Local Food Work coalition, to strengthen organic food buying groups and co-ops.

Jim Crowder
28 September 2011 10:52

I find it difficult to believe that Organic pasta is cheaper that the low price pasta in supermarkets. It's certainly not what I see. Perhaps the comparison is between the "Taste the Difference" type products and organic. Also as a reply to Elisabeth, as long as we subsidise solar power to the level we do, it will be cheaper. What about if we didn't? Wouldn't that be a fairer comparison? It's what we compare against that counts. We can always show organic to be cheaper if we can find expensive goods.

Elisabeth Winkler
28 September 2011 10:30

Thanks - these price comparisons between organic and non-organic are so useful. It is great to show that organic is not necesssarily the more expensive. And, as Helen said on Radio 4, the price difference - between solar-powered organic farming and oil-dependent non-organic farming - may shrink even more as oil prices rise.

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