Professor Hamm, organic produce is certainly becoming more popular, yet its actual market share is still comparatively small. In your opinion, why do you think organic produce has not gained ground more quickly? Is this a problem of supply or demand?
There are many reasons for this. Firstly, from the perspective of consumers, the availability of such products is still very limited. Discount stores don’t stock much in the way of organic produce, while the selection of organic foodstuffs on offer in the food retail sector is also unsatisfactory, especially for high-demand fresh produce such as meat, sausages and cold cuts, but also cheese, fruit and vegetables. In specialist, artisanal food stores, one has to search for a long time to find organic produce suppliers. In larger wholefood stores, which are unfortunately not a common sight outside of the big towns and cities, it is possible to find a sufficiently large selection of organic produce, with the notable exception of meat, sausages and cold cuts. In addition to the rather measly selection on offer, time and again supply bottlenecks arise, affecting regional, or at the very least, German products, because organic consumers also question the sense in using international suppliers and are therefore more critical of importing organic products. With this in mind, some organic consumers much prefer conventional produce from the local area over imported organic produce.
The main issue in Germany on the supply side is that not enough farms have been converted for the production of organic food. This is mainly because organic farming is seen as too costly and time-consuming. The view is that farmers are able to earn their money more easily via more traditional agricultural means. The main issue on the demand side is that consumers must cover great distances to find specialized stores with a wide selection of produce. Other consumers are more preoccupied with the cost. In general, most consumers expect organic produce to be slightly more expensive, but as our price tests have revealed time and again, the majority of households are prepared to dig a little deeper for this.
Even the most intensive buyers of organic foodstuffs are unable to meet their nutritional needs exclusively with organic produce. In your view, what are the barriers that restrict consumers from going totally organic?
Have you ever tried to live solely off organic produce? Even in large cities, this isn’t be possible, because some products, for example drinks, simply aren’t available in organic variants. In addition, wholefood stores often lack sufficient car parking facilities. And who could honestly say they enjoy having to lug a big weekend shop or crates of drinks through the streets to the next car park? In the countryside, people have to travel long distances to find shops with a decent organic range, some- thing which completely contradicts the environmental attitudes held by many organic consumers. Snacks and take-away meals, for example from bakeries, snack bars, canteens and restaurants, are becoming an increasingly important sector for organic produce, but consumers still have to search for a while before coming across organic offerings.
How can lines of communication regarding the benefits of organically grown produce be improved to win over consumers?
Communicating effectively with consumers on the issue of organic produce is really tricky, because the majority of consumers, particularly the younger generations, no longer know about current practices in agriculture and food processing. It is therefore an arduous task to pin- point the numerous differences between organic and conventional produce. In addition, the conventional agriculture industry has spent lots of money on trying to improve its image. This can currently be seen in the animal welfare label. Moreover, many consumers are totally unaware how a loss of biological diversity caused by conventional agricultural methods may affect nature and the countryside in the long term. It should also go without saying that there are many consumers who don’t really want to know exactly how food is produced and what is actually involved in these processes, as they worry that they might suddenly lose their appetite. However, putting such things to the back of one’s mind is a trend which is seen not just with regard to food. Consumers tend not to question the working conditions after happily securing a bargain when out clothes shopping or getting excited about the latest smartphone.
Which products have the greatest potential for an expansion of organic consumption?
Meat and fish are two clear areas where there is great potential for an improvement in the selection of organic produce. These days, a small yet steadily growing number of consumers are vegetarian. The reasons behind this lifestyle choice are twofold. The first is a rejection of con- ventional forms of intensive of livestock farming, for example forms of intensive force feeding, while the second relates to health concerns regarding the increasingly widespread use of antibiotics in raising livestock. This is something upon which the organic sector can really capitalize, but in order to do so it must communicate more effectively. An approach for consumers with a very critical view of conventional agri- culture would be to say: “eat meat less often, but when you do, enjoy it guilt-free.” Convenience products represent a second potential area for growth, such as targeting younger consumers with a wider selection of popular frozen pizzas, but also pre-prepared food for the hospitality sector.
I’ll end on two personal questions: are there any food groups for which you consider organic produce to be particularly important? (And would you share your favorite organic products with us?)
Oh, many products! For me, it is most important to buy organic quality poultry, fruit and vegetables as I believe the starkest difference in organic and conventional variants can be seen with these. My favorite organic produce would have to be free-range chickens. They live in small groups in mobile chicken coops which are repeatedly placed on new grazing ground. This means the animals are able to roam freely, enjoying the fresh air every day of the year. Once you’ve tasted chicken like this, you’ll never buy another type again.
Thank you for your time!