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Is the organic bubble set to burst?

If we had to pick a single defining food trend of the 21st century so far, organic would be the natural - in more ways than one - choice. From humble roots in health food shops and independent retailers, over the last 20 years, organic has made a seamless transition from a niche trend to a mainstream norm.

Since budget supermarkets Aldi and Lidl launched their organic ranges, costs have fallen, and it is almost universally seen as the preferred option for consumers making health-first food choices. Now, organic is represented in almost every supermarket aisle: from fresh fruit and veg, through to baby food and alcoholic drinks.

Organic sceptics have always existed: but in this post-truth era, is the ‘dig deep’ millennial mindset finally unearthing truths about organic that threaten to burst its (non-toxic) bubble?

When it emerged that Whole Foods - the US’s largest organic and natural food retailer - had fallen short of projected earnings, and was closing nine outlets, suspicions were raised that organic could be about to take a tumble. Meanwhile, a reportin the Telegraph suggested that not only is organic food no better for you, but it’s not all that great for the planet, farming practices or animal welfare either.

For a generation who value transparency, provenance and sustainability, could the organic industry be on course for an almighty fall from grace? The here and now

Globally, the organic food and beverage market has never been healthier: a recent market report forecasts a growth rate of around 16.6%, with an approximated worth of $456 billion by 2025. In the UK too, the Soil Association’s 2017 Organic Market Report revealed a 7.1% growth of organic food and drink - its highest for more than a decade - compared to a steady decline in the non-organic space.

UK retailers at all levels of the price-spectrum are seeing increased sales of organic products: Tesco by 15% and Waitrose by 5%. Added to that, the use of organic food in the catering industry grew by more than 15% - a sure sign that consumers and producers alike are demanding organic on their plates.

However, the Telegraph's study does raise some particular concerns surrounding the impact of organic farming on the environment that could be seen as at odds with a consumer base increasingly motivated by sustainability.

It describes how organic farming, compared to traditional methods, requires more land and yields a much lower rate of crop per acre. In the US, this essentially means that in order to produce as much food organically as is currently farmed traditionally, natural parkland and wildlife conservation areas would be put at risk. And although organic crops emit less greenhouse gases than conventional ones, the increased surface area required means that to offer a realistic, mass-market alternative, significantly more would be released into the earth’s atmosphere.

Traditionally, buyers motivated by organic and those drawn to sustainability have been one and the same. But with this latest research, consumers may be torn between what is best for them, and what is best for the planet.    What does the future look like?

It might all look rosy now, but FMCG brands know that in order to future-proof their offerings, they need to appeal not only to millennials, but to the coming-of-age Gen Z as consumers of the future. A year ago, Gen Z were all over the clean eating trend: it appealed to their sense of visual artistry, their quest for nutrition, and their desire for experience and meaning. But they also have a quizzical nature, and so with clean eating’s dramatic fall from grace, what’s next?

Research has shown that, along with ‘organic’ and ‘natural’, ‘sustainability’ is one of the key buzzwords that resonates with the Gen Z audience. While they seek out food experiences that are fun and experimental, they also value ingredient transparency and food provenance. Furthermore, a Nielsen study found they were more willing than any other demographic to pay extra for sustainable offerings - such as products that have been grown in a socially responsible way, enriching our urban environments.  

For Gen Z, meaning is more than marketing-hype deep: and organic appeals - unlike for baby-boomers and millennials - not just on the presumption of health, but for its universal ‘goodness’. But if noises of dissent grow, organic could easily lose its allure. Just look at the backlash to ‘superfoods’.

To capture the attention of future consumers now, FMCG brands must employ soft power thinking to place ethics and authenticity firmly at the centre of their identities. Technology might just have the answer: young people concerned with the global sustainability of meat consumption and the ethics of factory farming could, for example, be wooed by the experimental nature of cultured, lab-grown hamburgers.

To answer the original question: the organic bubble is still firmly afloat. However, it is a bubble, not a crystal ball. With tastes changing at such a remarkable rate, seeing even two years ahead is difficult. While we can catch glimpses of the future and prophesize trends, we must also know that the future is rarely predictable.

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