Editorially freed from the shackles of Brexit, Tom Campbell-Smart, operations director at Brand Organic, explores the multiple crises facing the industry and the wider public
Following a meeting with the (delightful) editors of this very publication at NOPEX it was decided that my thematic ramblings around Brexit were beginning to wear a bit thin. I did not protest. It has been the best part of three years since my first submission on the topic, and while there is plenty left in store (more on that later in the year), there is only so much appetite one can have for the topic, myself included.
“Change it up,” they said. “Roll the creative dice. Pick apart the issues that really get to you, and our readers will surely engage. Take a break from the rigours of Brexit – you deserve it. And, frankly, so does our readership.”
So here goes.
When does difficult become a crisis?
It has become starkly apparent to me of late that a lot of things appear to be in crisis. I, like most people, consume my news on a digital device, via a number of sources (one has to make some attempt to ensure balance). The more I scroll, click and tap, the more that dreaded C word keeps cropping up.
A quick search on the BBC website revealed the following have been reported as being ‘in crisis’ since January 2023 (take a deep breath):
The NHS, teachers, The Met and almost every public service in the UK. Sudan. Welsh housing. Welsh rugby. Inflation, the economy and the cost of living. Energy prices. Tottenham and Everton Football club. US banking. Stormont. The US border. Food prices. The economy in a very general sense. Israel and Haiti. Drugs and the water supply in Europe. Migrants. The SNP. Cornish housing. Sri Lanka. Childcare and the care system as a wider piece, perhaps falling under the public service narrative above. Animal charities. The debt ceiling. Mens’ mental health. Oh, and The Oscars.
Perhaps some perspective is required. Less sensationalism, more accuracy
Now I appreciate this is not cutting-edge journalistic research, but it is indicative of the times we live in – so bombarded by news and so often reliant on journalistic responsibility to gauge the extent to which we should be worried about it.
There are some startling omissions from the above list: the climate, obesity, processed food, soil, biodiversity, even Ukraine and Afghanistan. Perhaps they were there but were not unearthed via my Pulitzer-worthy groundwork. But it forced me to think: what constitutes a crisis? And is it fair to label the sacking of a manager and his ensuing replacement at a Premier League football club with the plight of a North African nation on the brink of collapse as forces loyal to two rival generals battle for control?
The answer seems clear. Perhaps some perspective is required. Less sensationalism, more accuracy. Something other than judging the scale and relevance of a crisis by how many articles one can find on it.
So, to turn this article somewhat on its head, is the natural and organic products industry in the midst of its own crisis? It’s an enormous question. It depends on what you read, who you listen to. So much of the answer is based on context, perspective. And language – because without emotive language, perspective becomes a simpler task.
In my own opinion, I don’t think it is. That is not to say there are not significant challenges to deal with in different corners of the trade. Spiralling costs. Changing shopper habits. Food prices, pushed down for years, are now seeing UK shoppers spend a percentage of their weekly income on food akin to the rest of Europe. The border continues to adapt (no mention of the B word, we’ve moved on to C now). Innovation, at least in terms of F&B, continues to be a low investment priority for many producing businesses looking to simply maintain sales. But this has been a building narrative for some time now.
I’d back most people to get out of a pickle
On the flip side, inflation is beginning to stabilize. The border is on the brink of becoming equal for all. Shipping, and transport in general, has eased, while the UK remains a thriving marketplace with high amounts of start-up potential. Oh, and it’s summer, so the world just seems that little bit nicer. And this isn’t just a story for those in the UK; our global conversations as an importer of organic produce from all around the world reveal this is a story being re-told the world over, in different languages and timezones. But what is emerging is that savvy businesses seem to be doubling down on innovation, which is surely an indication of brighter times to come. So no, a crisis seems a bit much – this isn’t existential for all – but there is no doubt trading is tough, whatever part of the market you are in.
Perhaps ‘crisis’ has become the significantly over- and mis-used word of the decade. More emotive but equally as irritating as ‘literally’. Less teenage than ‘sick’ or ‘cool’, less boring than ‘weight’. If that’s the case, I’m pushing for ‘pickle’ to be inserted firmly into the vocabularic agenda once more. Not simply because I like them, but because I’d back most people to get out of a pickle.