There's a huge opportunity for organic exports

lee holdstock

Export. It’s a proven way to balance a country’s finances and drive productivity and since the Brexit vote, there’s been a lot of talk about it. According to the Department for International Trade, about 19% (£18.2bn) of all UK food went overseas in 2015. For cars and aerospace export, the figure is over 70%. Ignoring the obvious apples and oranges comparison, food could do better. But how easy is it in practice and where is the opportunity?

DIT’s plan to support food exports over the next five years predictably contains much talk of growing ambition and capability. Less anticipated is the mention of high-integrity, high-welfare and more sustainable products. Organic and free-from are not only specifically featured in the plan, but are also food categories DIT believes are of special interest to many of its key export destinations, like France and India.

Export advisors have long been keen to point that UK businesspeople are respected the world over. Add to this Britain’s reputation for robust certification and high organic standards and I see a winning formula.

The Soil Association’s Annual Organic Market Report suggests demand is there, with evidence of a clear, growing global trend for ethical, sustainable, high-integrity and traceable products. The US alone is growing its organic market at more than 11% year on year and retailers have a newfound interest in the UK offer.

There are, however, challenges. As the organic market grows at an impressive 7%, the UK’s own domestic market will continue to act as a distraction. Worse still, differing organic regulations around the world can also present barriers. Would-be exporters of organic dairy product to the US will quickly find that if any of the cows have received antibiotics, then their milk won’t be welcome Stateside.

China is another potentially lucrative market, but one with difficult to navigate organic regulations. Those looking for a long-term access solution, particularly to traditional retail, would be advised to talk to the Soil Association Certification experts, as scaling the legislative Great Wall isn’t impossible.

Making it in export often starts with getting a few fundamentals right. Getting high-quality support and advice and doing your research are all important. Soil Association Certification’s work with Organic Farming & Development China reinforced for us how important relationships can be. Choosing the right partners can be the key to avoiding time-consuming mistakes.

Capacity building is needed if we are to realise our potential as a food export nation. Armed with information, insights and practical help for business, the UK’s food trade organisations stand ready to help. Whether downloading the Food & Drink Exporters Association’s planning advice, or joining one of Soil Association Certification’s export events, food businesses will find there’s a significant amount of support available.

Yes, export can be a long and expensive road, but when businesses that do it see a 34% increase in productivity within their first year of exporting, the journey can pay back.

Lee Holdstock is trade relations manager at the Soil Association

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