The coronavirus pandemic is creating increased demand for organic vegetables worldwide. “We always see a rise in the demand for organic products during a crisis. Consumers want certainty,” says Miriam van Bree from Bionext.
Let’s start with some facts and figures. In the USA, sales of organic fruit and vegetables rose by 22% in March 2020, according to the Organic Produce Network in The Produce News. The Netherlands-based GroentenFruit Huis indicates that sales of organic produce in Europe enjoyed double-digit growth in the same month, and specialised retailers such as Ekoplaza have also received a substantial boost. Nautilus Organic, a Dutch growers’ cooperative which has 45 members supplying organic fruit and vegetables to customers throughout Europe, completely ran out of stock in no time. In fact, it has seen a fourfold increase in demand from British retail customers. Whole Foods Market, the world’s biggest retailer of natural food products, has restricted the number of online customers due to unprecedented demand, and the same holds true for Abel & Cole and Riverford, the two main organic box scheme producers in the UK. They have seen an additional 20,000 enquiries per week.
Re-evaluating the relationship with food
According to Neil Haynes, Product Development Specialist at Rijk Zwaan UK, there is a good explanation for this trend. “Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, people are embracing the idea of home delivery. Additionally, the situation has forced people to re-evaluate their relationship with food. People are cooking at home more, spending more time with their families, and some are even growing their own vegetables. Consumers are discussing and educating themselves relating to how produce is grown and sourced. But we will have to wait for the dust to settle to see whether the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lasting increase in the demand for organic produce.”
In search of certainty
Hein Wolff, Director of the Nautilus Organic growers’ cooperative, believes that the rise in demand is caused by the healthy eating trend. “That’s why people are increasingly consuming fruit and vegetables. Organic produce has the added advantage of being chemical-free. I expect at least a certain percentage of this extra demand to be permanent.”
Miriam van Bree, Manager of Knowledge and Innovation at Bionext (the Dutch chain organisation for organic food and farming), believes that the new level of demand will remain completely unchanged after the crisis: “We’ve seen that people look for high-quality food in uncertain times. It happened in the FMD crisis in 2001 and in the financial crisis in 2008, and now it’s happening again. It’s a fascinating trend. Organic produce offers people both quality and certainty. We’ve also noticed that the growth in organic sales continues after the crisis – it doesn’t drop again. And it’s the same across the whole of Europe.” Besides that, Van Bree has a mathematical reason for the boom in organic sales during the crisis: eateries are closed. “In that industry, the share of organic products is unfortunately less than 1%.”
Opportunity to broaden the organic base
In The Produce News, Matt Seeley, CEO of the US Organic Produce Network, draws the same conclusion as Van Bree and Wolff: the rise in demand is driven by the desire for certainty. “Consumers are looking for items they trust during these uncertain times, and organic fresh produce is a healthy and safe option for all.” In the article, Steve Lutz, Senior Vice-President of Insights and Innovation at Category Partners, says that broadening the base of organic retail volume is both a challenge and an opportunity for the industry. “What we see in the Nielsen data is that organic produce at retail is concentrated within fewer categories than conventional produce, especially in the winter months when locally produced organic products are less available,” states Lutz.
Looking for innovation
Neil Haynes from Rijk Zwaan UK agrees that there is scope for the organic sector to expand the product range. “Traditionally, organic growers have used older varieties. New growers tend to look for varieties with built-in disease resistances and excellent and predictable yields. They are also looking for innovation. They want Salanova® lettuce, they want striped aubergines, they want cherry tomatoes with a rich flavour – and so do their customers.”
The growers’ cooperative Nautilus Organic already offers its customers a broad choice of organic produce. The product catalogue includes hundreds of different options, including Xenia pears, wild beet, red oakleaf lettuce, wild cucumbers, Choco cherry tomatoes on the vine and Jalapeño peppers.
Wolff: “Together with chain partners such as Rijk Zwaan, we will continue to work on product development, both now and in the future. We expect to see a sustained rise in the amount of organic produce grown. This crisis is further accelerating the current upward trend.”
Straight from the farm
Besides the growing demand for organic produce, Miriam van Bree from Bionext highlights some other notable shifts in the coronavirus era: “We’re seeing shorter supply chains. Consumers are ordering local produce for home delivery and are increasingly buying products straight from the farm, such as via drive-throughs for strawberries and asparagus. People are doing that because shops are higher-risk areas, but also because they want to support local farmers. They are looking for ultra-fresh products with an authentic story and that’s a good fit with organic growers, many of whom have set up their own delivery service or are involved in innovative online initiatives.”
How are organic growers managing the workload?
The coronavirus crisis is having a big impact on organic growers, not only because of the increased demand for their products, but also in terms of staffing challenges. Miriam van Bree from Bionext: “Arable farmers and fruit and vegetable growers employ a lot of seasonal workers from countries such as Poland and Romania. They can’t come to the Netherlands now that travel restrictions are in place. That creates problems, because growers need a lot of help to plant, maintain and harvest their crops. Besides that, social distancing is difficult on things like planting machines.” Hein Wolff is hearing similar feedback from the 45 organic growers that are members of the Nautilus Organic cooperative. “It can be difficult to get enough staff due to the shortage of seasonal workers. Some companies are also affected by people being off sick with coronavirus. But for all growers, employee health and safety is their top priority.”