Organic retailers in Birmingham are being forced to switch to conventional produce to survive the recession.
Grocers and cafes specialising in organic food said they have seen a drop in organic sales as customers look for cheaper options.
The change is a further blow to the industry, which was recently highlighted in a Food Standards Agency report stating that organic food was no healthier than conventional foods.
Peter Gough, restaurant manager at the Kitchen Garden Cafe, in York Road, Kings Heath, said the business has seen a drop in sales in its organic fruit and vegetables. Although most of the greens are still organic, it decided not to restrict itself to selling completely organic produce.
He said: “You have a choice of buying organic food which is incredibly expensive and can be sourced from anywhere in the world or buying produce from closer to home, which supports businesses who offer good quality products. We decided it is not only a cost-effective way, but an ethical way to trade. It means we can keep prices low. If we decided to stick to being completely organic we’d be bankrupt by now. That’s the harsh reality of the situation.”
The decision has in turn given consumers more choice, said Mr Gough.
“Consumers were just being much more savvy as the recession did start deepening,” he said.
“Our business hasn’t been particularly hit, all our figures are still up on last year. What we found is the only way to keep that going is to offer value for money. If we didn’t change, the effect of the recession on us would have been far bigger.”
One example of change is the decision to stop transporting organic milk from Devon and instead support a local farmer. Mr Gough said the business had to face putting prices up, as well as justifying its carbon footprint.
“It’s not organic but it’s good quality milk,” he said. “We mainly use it to support local business.”
Ashley Eades, the part owner of greengrocers and deli OHO, in Harborne High Street, said the business, which began about 18 months ago, started out about 95 per cent organic. This has now dropped to about 70 per cent because of a decline in sales of organic food. Like the Kitchen Garden Cafe it has opted to stock more local produce.
He said: “We still do a fair bit of organic but we are doing a lot more local foods than we have done before because of the recession.”
Mr Eades said the thinking was common among other organic business-owners. “People have become a little bit more cost-conscious,” he said.
The organic food and drink market in the UK is currently worth about £1.6 billion. A survey last year by research analyst Mintel predicted almost half of all organic shoppers said they would reduce or give up buying organic because of the recession.
Last month a team of researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine reviewed all papers published over the last 50 years relating to nutrient content and health differences between the two kinds of produce.
They found little difference in nutritional value and no evidence of any extra health benefits from eating organic produce.
Simon Dunmore, who runs The Grocer, in Templefield Square, Edgbaston, has criticised the report and said “it could destroy the industry”.
He has seen a 50 per cent drop in organic sales since people became more thrifty.
Commenting on the report, he said: “The claims are absolute rubbish. I can’t believe they’ve said it,” he said.
“We really have messed with the food chain that much. Every day there are diseases coming to light that weren’t around years ago when a different kind of farming was in practice.”
Mr Gough added: “The report has changed people’s perspectives but I don’t think it should have done.
“During a recession it became another obstacle for people thinking ‘why am I spending twice as much when a quite important body has said it isn’t actually beneficial?’”