Should we be trying to “democratize” organic? Discuss

A plea to make organic standards tighter, a pledge to “democratize” organic and an attempt to understand why the Danes are so good at organic. These were some of the tasty ingredients in a lively panel discussion staged at this week’s OTB #GrowOrganic17 event, chaired by The Observer’s Lucy Siegle.

Thomas Pietrangeli said that his company, dairy cooperative Alra Foods, had a “vision of democratizing organic”. He said organic was still seen as elitist, and that “that is one of the barriers.”

Picking up on an early discussion about the runaway success of the Danish organic sector, Dan Lewis, from HPI Research, said he was impressed with “how Danish retailers have confronted the issue of price head on”.

Rhys Herbert, a senior economist at Lloyds Bank, commented that “comparisons between the UK and Denmark are interesting”. But he said that a “more uneven distribution of income in the UK” posed a question about how similar the two countries are in their consumer demographic. “Does this mean we need to address social inequality before we can sell organic?,” asked Siegle. The answer, to the relief of many, was “no”.

Cheryl Thallon, representing the organic supplements and health products sector, said that 40% of Viridian’s range was now certified organic. And she was keen to stress the “certified” bit – along with the issue of standards generally. “People say that you have to jump through hoops to get Soil Association certification. But from my point of view the tighter, the more rigorous standards are, the better.”

Thallon also discussed her recent experience as a health food retailer (she and her husband Shan Higgs opened Sheaf Street Health Store in Daventry last year). She said that the advice of fellow panelist, Alan Martin, to build a full scale demo kitchen in the new store had proven “the best way of all communicate the benefits of organic”.

Martin who has two Food For Thought stores (Kingston and Guildford) said he had recently begun selling organic fruit and veg. The advice from his supplier was “don’t try and make margin out of this – start with 2-3%, otherwise you won’t be able to grow it”. Martin added: “That’s what we’re doing and we’re seeing some really interesting results”.

Martin also shared some insights on the vegan and plant-based food trends. “The media talks a lot about veganism at the moment. We think more in terms of a plant-based diet. They are two different things. Vegan is more political. The people who follow a plant-based diet are more likely to be interested in organic.”