The geopolitical shocks of the last few years and subsequent cost of living crisis led to significant negative impacts to organic markets across Europe. But there are now strong signals that organic sales across Europe are staging a recovery, along with the sector’s supporting infrastructure.

Resurgent organic sector

Locomotive for change

In November, Germany’s minister of food and agriculture, Cem Özdemir, launched the country’s Organic Strategy 2030, which formally commits Germany to achieving 30% organic agriculture by 2030. It is both an important practical and symbolic development, demonstrating a resurgent and determined organic sector. What is particularly striking about Germany’s new strategy is that it also places organic practices at the heart of a transformation of the whole of German agriculture.

There are hopes that Germany’s ambitious strategy (which exceeds the EU 25% organic target) can serve as a template for change more widely in Europe.

Commenting on the development, the prominent Danish organic consultant and IFOAM World Board Member, Paul Holmbeck, said that the boost to policy and organic market development in Germany “can be a new locomotive for the organic sector in Europe as a whole”.

Market recovery

The green shoots of an organic recovery are appearing across Europe. The recovery is modest in many cases, especially when market values are compared to the boom year of 2020. But it does seem reasonable now to think that organic market growth could soon start to resemble its pre-pandemic trajectory. So let’s look at the evidence.

Denmark, which provided some of the inspiration for Germany’s plan, seems a good place to start. Speaking in October at a conference in the UK, Organic Denmark’s Mads Sejersen Vinther said that after a “small drop” in the last two years, the organic market was “already turning” and heading back towards the world-beating 16% share it peaked with before the economic crisis. In France, after two years of significant market contraction, there are signs from specialist retail that organic sales are growing again. Carrefour-owned organic chains So.Bio and Bio c’ Bon both saw turnover increases in 2023 on a like-for-like basis. The country’s biggest specialist retailer Biocoop, with over 740 stores, also reported growth in turnover (+ 2%). Just as significantly, Biocoop’s growth was 3.7% above general grocery retail, suggesting that consumers are re-establishing organic habits.

A study by the organic research body Biovista showed that specialist organic stores were growing sales and footfall again

A revival in fortunes for German organic retailing was also identified last year. A study by the organic research body Biovista showed that specialist organic stores were growing sales and footfall again. Investment in organic by leading discounters could also soon come to fruition. For example, Lidl Germany has committed to increasing its organic offer by 10% by 2025. Aldi Süd meanwhile has embarked on a plan to convert 25% of its entire private label range into Bio+Naturland certified products by the end of 2024.

In Spain, as well as continued growth of organic farming and production, fresh entrants and activity in retail is stimulating the domestic consumer market. Notable developments include the partnership formed between leading Italian organic retail chain NaturaSi and Spain’s Bioconsum cooperative (this currently totals 60 independent stores, 25 of which have already started using NaturaSì branding). Spanish specialist organic retail leader Veritas (80 stores) continues to evolve and innovate. Herbolario Navarro (54 stores) is also expanding and developing its experiential retail format. In e-commerce, Naturitas, with turnover in excess of EUR 80 million and distribution in 20 countries, is a standout actor.

Resurgent organic sector

Reset moment

In a striking development in the UK, the Soil Association recently unveiled a new vision of ‘making organic for all’ in what it called a “reset moment” for the UK sector. As the Soil Association’s business development manager, Lee Holdstock, put it: “If we are serious about tackling the triple crisis of climate, diversity and health, organic agriculture must be scaled up and the products that come from organic agriculture cannot be the preserve of the privileged few”. The Soil Association says it plans to rally all organic stakeholders and change-makers in the UK to dramatically step-up efforts to mainstream and normalise organic.

Political developments could also bring a change of fortunes for the UK organic sector, with a more pro-organic Labour Party widely expected to form a new government in 2024.

As Europe’s organic sector stages a recovery, we can expect 2024 to be a high-stakes year

Slowly but steadily, the case for a holistic and participatory transformation of global food and farming practices is being heard. Support for organic and agroecological solutions are gaining wider acceptance as they are increasingly seen as offering effective tools to meet UN Sustainable Development Goals and climate targets. The benefits of organic, a system that brings positive impacts on climate, food sovereignty, biodiversity, soil fertility and animal welfare are becoming difficult to ignore or deny.

High-stakes year

And precisely because of that, just as organic is poised on the brink of a breakthrough moment, it faces coordinated attacks from increasingly hostile opponents. Europe’s leading organic advocacy and industry groups are acutely aware of the disinformation wars being stoked by lobby groups. So there is the sense now that, as well as robustly making the case for organic through normal channels and approaches, the sector is having to actively take a stand. With organic resurgent, pushback from detractors is likely to become even more aggressive. With that in mind, we should steel ourselves for a high-stakes year.

Author: Jim Manson, Journalist

Published in the BIOFACH & VIVANESS 2024 Bio Eco Actual Special Edition.

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Read the BIOFACH & VIVANESS 2024 Bio Eco Actual Special Edition