By Max Clarke

The latest victim of the country’s record low consumer confidence has been revealed by the Soil Association: sales of organic produce have dropped 5.9% over the past year, according to their 2010 Organic Market Report published today.

The rate of decline slowed throughout the year, prompting ‘cautious optimism’ for 2011 from the Association. Waitrose and Marks & Spencer anticipate modest growth for 2011, despite fragile consumer confidence in the wider economy; while Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and the Co-operative predict level sales year on year.

The organic industry, from production to retail, currently contributes £1.73 billion to the UK economy while farmland covers 738,709 hectares, or 4.2% of total agriculture.

“There is powerful evidence that consumers who care about the diverse benefits of organic will stay loyal, even during these tough economic times,” commented Roger Mortlock, deputy director of the Soil Association.

“Given the current uncertainties in the UK and global economy, it would be rash to make any predictions for the future organic market. But the instability caused by climate change, population growth and resource depletion mean that business as usual in food and farming is not an option.

As Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State at Defra, remarked recently: ‘Organic farmers are the pioneers of sustainable farming and have valuable lessons to pass on to the rest of the sector.”