• Nutritional advantages of organic over non-organic produce is an area of ongoing scientific difference
  • But buying fresh produce from organic specialists does encourage cooking from scratch, which is a healthier dietary practice
  • The ready availability of organic items may be an issue for many consumers living in certain areas where specialists are sparse
  • We set out to determine where in the UK specialist organic food retailers are the most prevalent and accessible

Organic Food Map Of Britain _1.2

  • The South West England region contains the highest number of consumer-facing organic specialists per capita, with 4.46 outlets for every 100,000 of the population.
  • Wales comes in at second; the North West just pips Northern Ireland for third.
  • However, the English average across all constituent regions (1.8 per 100,000) is lower than Wales (2.81), Northern Ireland (2.38) and Scotland (2.03).

 Organic Food -Specialist Outlets -by -UK-Region _3.1 (1)

What does the term ‘organic’ mean?

Simply put, organic food is that which has been grown or reared using entirely natural means, without additives, man-made chemicals or genetically modified organisms. This means they are free from pesticides and artificial fertilisers.

To qualify as organic, a producer must adhere to certain standards set by the government department responsible for food and agriculture; in the UK, this is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Official bodies, such as the Soil Association in the UK, are regulated by the government and run certification schemes to help buyers and retailers identify producers following (and sufficiently meeting) organic guidelines.

Is organic food healthier?

The health benefits of organic food is an area which has been subject to much debate in recent years.

Studies into the actual nutritional value of organic compared to non-organic produce have presented conflicting results. Several have found that there is no significant difference between the two; while one recent analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition stated that organic crops have a higher antioxidant concentration than non-organic.

As research into the subject is still relatively new, the long-term health benefits of choosing organic over non-organic may arguably remain to be seen.

But for consumers, a strong argument could be made for the significant health benefits associated with the practice of shopping at organic specialists.

Farm shops and organic retailers carry an abundance of fresh produce, which encourages consumers who visit them to prepare meals from scratch. This lessens the scope for less healthy choices more prominently featured on supermarket shelves, such as pre-packaged ready meals.

Cooking ourselves using fresh ingredients affords us more control over what we eat. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, ready meals, snacks and fast food will almost always contain more salt, sugar and fat than those dishes we prepare ourselves. So, the more someone cooks and eats sensible meals at home, the less susceptible they’ll be to diet-related illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

While the physical advantages of organic items themselves may be an area of difference for many experts then, their purchase and use could be said to facilitate better dietary habits and, in turn, better health.

And obviously aside from these health benefits, buying organic has other advantages which are also important to consider, such as contributing towards better animal welfare, and helping farmers to maintain better quality of soil.

Availability

However those wishing to buy organic may not always find it easy to do so.

Food stores specialising in organic tend to be independently run; and as such may only be present in areas where there is a reliably strong demand. A smaller-sized urban area for instance, might be served by just one or two specialist outlets, and these might not be financially able to secure premises in a location with high footfall.

What’s more, while most large supermarkets do stock organic produce, the cost can often be higher than that of non-organic. The range of organic items (and fresh produce in general) in smaller chain outlets may also be much narrower in comparison.

Of course, as we’ve stated above, the health benefits associated with buying organic which we can be certain of are more to do with practice and the buying environment.

If we took the notion that there is little nutritional difference between organic and nonorganic at face value: then if fresh produce is eminently available in our local supermarket, a shortage of organic specialists would not necessarily hinder our capacity to source fresh produce and cook from scratch.

But the environment and choice provided by organic specialists is conducive to better and healthier shopping habits. So, whether the science agrees that organic produce is better for us than non-organic or not, a high prevalence of specialist organic food outlets has to be seen as advantageous for health: the more organic specialists there are and the more affordable the food is, the more consumers will be inclined to prepare food using fresh produce.

The study

We thought it might be interesting to look at where in the UK organic foods are most available and accessible to consumers; so we assessed the per capita prevalence of specialist retailers, farm shops, cafes and restaurants, box schemes and mail order providers in each region, to try and determine the UK’s organic food capital.

Method

At present, there is no official directory of organic specialists in the UK.

However, we did find a comprehensive set of listings at Organic Food Directory, which we used to compile our findings.

We wanted to focus on those specialist establishments supplying organic produce directly to the public. Consequently, from this directory we chose to include only the following:

  • organic grocers and supermarkets
  • organic farm shops
  • farms operating gate sales
  • establishments running box schemes or a home delivery service
  • cafes, restaurants and catered accommodation
  • markets or producers operating market stalls

We chose to omit producers and manufacturers who only act as wholesalers or suppliers to retail outlets, distributors, and farms who did not specify whether or not they sold directly to the public.

Although they often sell organic produce, we also excluded the big supermarket chains.

(As the resource we used is not run by an official body and is partly compiled from trader submissions, the data is only intended to give an indication of the number of organic specialists, and should not be interpreted as absolute definitive figures.)

The results

It might not come as a surprise to many that the South West of England tops the list of UK regions for organic food specialist concentration per capita. With vast expanses of farmland, it is arguably the region best set up to provide organic produce.

This high per capita prevalence suggests that demand is healthy and more consumers in the region are tending towards organic.

However, this isn’t to say that the demand for organic produce isn’t present in London. The capital may have the lowest number of specialists per capita; but it’s important to consider that it is a built up, densely populated area, which is significantly geographically smaller than any other region in the UK, and retail property is not as readily available.

In fact, London has the highest concentration of organic food specialists per square kilometre, with 3.44 per 100km² (using this measure, the North West placed second with 1.22 and the South West third with 1.02).

This indicates a high level of demand for organic produce; but we would estimate that the presence of food outlets in London which don’t specialise in organic is also much higher too.

There are of course a number of ways to interpret this.

Perhaps one way to do so is that in London, the means are there for those wishing to seek organic specialists out; whereas in the South East, organic specialists are now more ‘the norm’, or part of the indigenous shopping landscape.

In our opinion, this makes the South West the UK's organic food capital.

Is there room for more organic specialists in the UK? We think so. Particularly in England, where the per capita number of outlets is lower than all three of the other UK member nations.

Nutritional arguments pertaining to organic produce aside, organic specialist shops encourage more sustainable food production practices, and help consumers to be more engaged with where their food comes from and what goes into what they eat.