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Britain's organics market is healthy and growing


November 8, 1999
Web posted at: 12:31 p.m. EST (1731 GMT)

From Financial Correspondent Todd Benjamin

LONDON (CNN) -- Organic farming has become one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in Britain, where one in three shoppers has purchased organic foods.

Despite high consumer prices, the demand for organic produce and livestock has increased by 40 percent a year. And the upward trend should continue, agricultural experts say, in large part due to recent food safety scares stampeding across England and the rest of Europe.

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Organic farmers relying on natural processes and nutrients have higher costs than those using the chemical insecticides and petrol-based fertilizers of conventional agriculture. But some of the former are doing well financially, said a representative of the Soil Association at an organic foods conference in London last week.

"The pioneering companies that developed the market -- the successful ones -- are now making a lot of money," Patrick Holden said. "We are now seeing the second tier of companies that are currently marketing conventional foods realizing that they've got to get involved."

Some stores expect organic produce will make up 20 percent of all fruits and vegetables sales in Britain next year. Food retailers say they have been surprised to witness that young adults will pay more for organics. At one supermarket, for example, 50 percent of all baby food sales is organic.

"Organic is such a strong brand. And basically in the UK (United Kingdom) there has always been a premium on brands and that is how the organics will go as well," said MD Foods' Laurent Ponty.

Prices will drop as farmers grow more organic produce, but never to the level of non-organic produce, agribusiness representatives say.

Organic farmers, for their part, say a lack of long-term incentives prevents conventional farmers from joining their ranks.

The British government contends its first priority for organics is making uniform safety standards.

"If it isn't properly regulated, if people do make false claims, if we find that the market is undermined, it will be very damaging to consumer confidence in the organic sector generally," said Elliot Morley, a UK government minister.

The challenge is considerable, particularly since Britain already imports 70 percent of its organic food.

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