Interview with Jim Manson from Natural Products Global
Zoom in on how the organic food sector is tackling Covid, dive deeper into the remarkable growth that we are witnessing in the plant-based and vegan categories, and more with Natural Products Global’s Editor in Chief, Jim Manson.
About Natural Products Global (NPG)
NPG is an editorially independent news service published by Diversified Communications UK. NPG delivers compelling content on product and consumer trends, companies and M&As, markets, retail, policy developments, regulations and standards, as well as ingredients and supply chains.
About Jim Manson
Jim Manson heads Diversified Communications UK’s natural and organic publishing portfolio as Editor in Chief. An esteemed journalist and writer, Jim has focussed on environment and development issues for specialist magazines throughout his career. His prestigious portfolio also comprises pieces for national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times, and World Bank Urban Age.
At NPG, you work to build a natural and organic future by connecting people and growing businesses. Tell us more about the vision behind your independent news service.
Natural Products Global was launched in 2017 and continues a long history of publishing and journalism in the company because, although Diversified is probably best known as an event organiser, we've been producing print magazines and news websites for a long time now. In fact, Natural Products News—which is our magazine for the UK's natural and organic industry—has been running since the early 1990s and is very much founded on a commitment to supporting independent journalism in our industry. And we've carried over this ethos into NPG. There's a lot of unmediated digital noise out there at the moment, so I think fact-based journalism that delivers news that readers can trust is probably something that's more needed than ever.
Natural Products Global has given us the opportunity to widen our reach internationally and also to connect the audiences with our events in London, Scandinavia, Spain, and Australia. And that immediately gave us a really sizable worldwide community to speak and interact with. What we do on NPG is provide a daily update on latest news developments, but also to give our readers some tools—the reports and presentations that we produce—to spot patterns and trends as they emerge. This makes it easier for readers to plan for their own businesses and organisations in the future.
What are the most significant changes that your team has observed in the food industry since the outbreak of COVID-19?
We've seen some impressive adaptations made by organic businesses and organisations during the crisis. One of the most striking, I think, has been the rapid expansion of home delivery direct consumer sales. We've seen that both at the grower and producer level, but also at the independent specialist retail channel levels while witnessing some new partnerships between those two groups. What's interesting is that home delivery has not just been a lifeline during the lockdown. Producers and small retailers have connected with an entirely new group of customers—people who weren't regular organic consumers before. This is an opportunity to create some new lifelong habits among that group. We reported recently on how local organic food sales have tripled in parts of Spain during the Covid crisis as a result of innovative, new distribution. Producers have been able to get a really important message across about the vital role that local production plays in guaranteeing food security and that lesson—the need for more resilient local food systems—has come directly out of Covid.
How are these being handled by various actors in the industry?
There’ve been some significant impacts in the last few weeks. I think probably most immediate was the loss of key markets for some parts of the organic food sector, and I’m thinking of the growers and producers who sell primarily to the restaurant and food service sector. The lockdowns that were imposed across Europe shut off those markets almost overnight. Further along the supply chain, we saw some quite serious logistical challenges. Quite often these were caused by surges in demand that occurred mostly in the pre-lockdown period of particular categories—food staples, flour, dried goods, groceries, tinned goods and so on. And combined with the sudden imposition of strict social distancing, it meant that wholesalers and manufacturers had to work very hard to keep retailers’ shelves stocked. A substantial number of cases had to learn completely different ways of doing things in a matter of a few days. We saw some significant spikes in demand for specific ingredients, and that has created some shortages in turn. This again left manufacturers urgently trying to find new suppliers, and that’s sometimes a more challenging task for organic businesses and other businesses that are applying strict ethical conditions. So continuity of supply has been another challenge. Shortages of packaging is another issue that’s been quite widely reported.
Looking further ahead, we’ve seen key industry bodies, such as IFOAM EU, working hard to plan for potential challenges around things like harvests, labour shortage, social distancing, transport obstacles, border controls, and so on. But I think it’s important to say that, overall, organic has been much more agile than the conventional food industry in this crisis. We’ve had fewer stock-outs and probably been able to show that we’ve got more resilient supply chains in place.
The EU recently released its Farm to Fork strategy with the ambitious target of achieving 25% organic land use by 2030. What key challenges or barriers will Europe's existing food system need to overcome to reach this target?
The EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy sets out some very ambitious targets for organic. It also sends a strong signal of intent, and that’s very exciting and encouraging. But I think there’s also a feeling that to achieve these targets, they will need to be backed up by a clear set of enabling actions, because, quite frankly, this is going to require a big step up from where we are to get to EU farmland that is 25% by 2030. I think the 2020 edition of the World of Agriculture Report shows that currently 7.7% of Europe’s farmland is organic, and although 10% of countries have 10% or more of their farmland under organic management, currently those with the highest percentages are typically the smaller countries. Hence, I tend to find myself agreeing with Stefan Hipp at OPTA, the Organic Processing and Trade Association, who says that 25% of organic is the right ambition, but it will require means to establish it. And that, in turn, will require a major refocusing of EU financial support of agriculture and a serious stimulus package to expand the organic market in the coming years.
From vegan meats and cheeses through to packaging, many new businesses are developing innovative, plant-based products to provide consumers with healthier and more environmentally friendly choices. Which brands or products first come to mind? In what ways are they changing consumption?
The growth of the plant-based and vegan categories has been remarkable, and we’ve been seeing sustained double-digit growth now for a number of years. So it’s a big trend in Europe, particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK. In fact, 23% of all food launches in the UK in 2019 were labelled vegan, and that’s helped the UK overtake Germany as the country with the highest level of vegan new product development.
In terms of brands, I’d single out VBites in the UK owned by the activist Heather Mills. They’re currently building the biggest plant-based food factory in the UK, with a lot of investment going on there, and hoping to create a sort of vegan valley enterprise zone in the northeast of England. Heura, a Spanish start-up, is doing some really interesting things—presenting themselves as an activist brand, but with some great tasting products and a very strong visual identity behind them. In a way, they remind me of the UK craft beer company BrewDog back in their early attention-seeking days. The dairy alternative brand Oatly just seems to go from strength to strength. It’s been interesting to see them take on the role of category ambassador in the process. In the US, Impossible Burger comes to mind, but not necessarily for the right reasons. It’s a plant-based product, but it uses genetically engineered ingredients. And although Impossible Foods, the brand owner, is completely upfront about that, there were certainly some big questions asked about their presence at the world’s biggest natural products trade show last year.
Looking to the future, how do you personally envision a more sustainable European food system?
This I think follows on quite neatly from the last question, because this is a discussion that can lead to a collision of values, sometimes because different people have very different ideas about sustainability, even within the natural products industry. There’s an often quite heated discussion around natural versus tech solutions to sustainability issues. And while organic actively embraces science that helps enhance, for example, traditional plant breeding or Internet of Things tech to help optimise harvests or irrigation, it very firmly rejects so-called ‘patent of life technologies’—genetic modification, gene editing, and so on. Some green companies have at least trialled some of these techniques, and so you can even get a natural versus green position in the same industry.
To come back to organic, I think climate change mitigation will be an increasingly important driver of change and will reshape food and farming in the future. I also think we’ll see organic, which performs very well in this respect, gaining wider support and being increasingly seen as a major contributor towards more sustainable approaches. I believe that what’s important, in the drive towards more sustainable food systems and our efforts to place organic at the centre of the debate, is that we don’t allow organic aspirations to be diluted and end up with a narrow, easy-to-achieve definition of organic that is based essentially on environmental goals. I think we should absolutely be making the holistic case for organic with its principles of fairness and care promoted just as strongly as ecology and health.