Why drinks companies should focus on farming to win the consumer's love

For decades now, the efficiency of ingredients - what gives maximum yield, which is most disease or frost-resistant - has taken precedence over everything else. Laura Foster examines why companies should pay more attention to the environmental and health impact of the growing of raw materials.

As fields are merged and the hedges dividing them lost, as pesticides are dumped endlessly on crops and heavy machinery crushes the very soil it works, our planet has reached a crisis point. The number of pollinators - the very beings the vast majority of our foods rely upon for reproduction - has crashed, and the quality of the soil is decreasing year on year.

Many experts believe that if farming practices continue in the same vein, we only have about 50 harvests left before the earth's soil gives up the ghost and can't be farmed any more. Combine this with climate change and the associated decrease in rainfall in some areas, and it doesn't take a huge amount of imagination to conclude we could see a replay of the American dust bowl years at some point, albeit on a much bigger scale.

Subsequently, we are seeing consumers in their increasing numbers voting with their feet against these farming practices. Drinks companies would do well to take heed.

Younger consumers drive consecutive growth in the organic market 

In the UK, the Soil Association Certification's (SAC) recently-released Organic Market Report for 2019 revealed that the UK's organic market enjoyed a 5.3% lift in sales last year - its seventh consecutive year of growth. Annual sales of all things organic in the country are now worth £2.33bn. One of the categories highlighted as driving this growth is organic wine.

"Organic is in the right place to capitalise on many of the consumer trends we're currently seeing across retail," says Clare McDermott, the SAC's business development director. "We know that more shoppers are looking to purchase sustainable products to reduce their impact on the planet, and this has combined with an increasing value being placed on transparency and traceability in the food system, more local and online shopping, and increasing interest in healthy options - where organic is often seen as a signpost to healthy choice."

In the US, 28.2% of 18 to 29-year-olds prefer to buy organic, the biggest proportion of any age group

As a sense of the broader scale, the US is the world's biggest organic consumer market, with almost $50bn spent on organic products in 2018, and 82% of households buying some form of organic products.

Alongside sustainability, health is another major driver in consumers buying organic - a report entitled The Organic & Clean Label Food Consumer in the US has found that when it comes to animal agriculture, consumers choose organic because of their concerns about practices such as the use of growth hormones and antibiotics in livestock. There are also numerous reports linking pesticides to cancer. While the jury is still out on whether this is actually the case, that hasn't stopped the idea taking root in the minds of many consumers.

It's worth noting that the biggest adopters of organic are younger: in the US, 28.2% of 18 to 29-year-olds prefer to buy organic, the biggest proportion of any age group; meanwhile, in the UK, the Organic Trade Board has declared that the growth in organic is being driven by younger consumers. As these groups get older, and have even more disposable income, the demand for organic is only likely to continue to increase.

Variety is the spice of life: making the case against monoculture crops

What does this mean for the drinks industry? It's no secret that the spirits, beer and soft drinks sectors are way behind wine producers when it comes to organic production, and they could look to wine for inspiration.

Some drinks companies, in particular, have found very clever USPs that grab attention when their stories are told. The Oxford Artisan Distillery, for example, sources its raw materials from organic farms within 50 miles of the distillery to grow heritage grains. The craft start-up also works with archeo-botanist John Letts, who has been developing sustainable farming practices for decades, focusing on increasing diversity in fields and taking the complete opposite path to growing monocultures.

"Modern hybrids grown as monocultures are genetically uniform crops where every plant in the field is a clone of its neighbour," says Letts. "They can't adapt to climatic change, and every plant responds to growing conditions in exactly the same way. They are vulnerable to disease, pests and drought and, because they are all short, they can't compete with weeds. Yields can be enormous in a good year if the fields are dosed with nitrogen fertiliser and dowsed regularly with fungicides, pesticides and herbicides but they will fail or underperform if conditions aren't perfect.

"In contrast, the [crops] that were grown in the past are genetically diverse, resilient and adaptable. Each plant in the field is different, creating a crop which is more vigorous, healthy and hardy - without the need for chemicals."

Visiting the distillery, the team's enthusiasm for the project is palpable, their message an easy one to understand and buy into. So much so that it makes the significant price of the products seem worth it. Consumers are more than happy to pay a premium when they understand why, after all. They are also willing to buy products that make them feel like they're making a difference, however small that is.

It's time to move away from the monoculture and damaging farming practices, and to increase ecological health and genetic diversity. As the adage goes, variety is the spice of life.

This article originally appeared on just-drinks.

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