No one in Europe – apart from the Danes – buys as much organic food as the Swiss. Gone are the days when only long-haired, sandal-wearing idealists bothered about green eating; customers now come from all strata of society.
But why are people ready to pay more for organically produced food?
"We are investing in our health,” one young mother of three children told swissinfo.ch. She said she shopped regularly at one of the organic greengrocer’s stalls in the market in Bern’s old city, although she knows her purchases would cost barely half as much at one of the cheaper supermarkets.
"People who don’t buy organic probably aren’t convinced, or don’t realise, that there’s a difference in quality. It tastes better and keeps for longer,” she explained.
Press photographer Allessandro della Valle is a regular customer at the same stall, because he too is convinced the quality is better.
"For me, what’s important is the taste and the pleasure. Here I can find the best tomatoes in the world, for example. What counts for me more than the fact that it’s organic, is that it’s grown locally. I want to eat food that’s in season, that grows here and isn’t imported."
"We have lots of regular customers from all parts of society, including people on low incomes,” said 19-year-old Naïma Blaser, who works on the stall in Bern once or twice a week, selling organic produce from her parent’s farm in Salavaux in canton Vaud.
"Our farm is alive, and supports life. There are far more different kinds of plants and animals in organically cultivated fields," she said, contrasting it with conventional farms, where, as she put it, the soil is “dead”.
"Farmers depend directly on nature. So they really ought to look after nature more carefully.”
Broad customer base
Cornelia Hügi, manager of a cooperative that has been selling sustainably-grown produce in Bern for more than 30 years, agrees that concern for the environment is one of the major arguments for choosing organic.
But it is also important that the produce is locally grown.
"People buying from us sometimes meet the growers personally delivering their produce to the shop."
The fact that the major retailers have also started selling organic fruit and vegetables, adopting the same arguments that were used by the organic pioneers, has not damaged business, Hügi told swissinfo.ch. In fact, it has even helped: "It has brought organic farming to the attention of a segment of the customer base who had never heard of it before.”
There was a time when only a small group of purists insisted on buying organic produce. Today there’s nothing unusual about students dropping by for an organic sandwich for lunch. And customers who turn up in cars no longer have to put up with disapproving looks.
“That’s always better than driving for miles in order to buy pre-packed cheapo stuff, which isn’t good for you and hasn’t been produced in acceptable conditions,” said Hügi.
She admitted that there are still some people in the organic sector who are a bit “behind the times” in their attitudes.
“Organic customers today expect efficient service and competent advice, without getting a lecture,” she warned.
"Seasonal and local"
Sara Stalder, head of the Swiss Consumers Association, told swissinfo.ch that most organic consumers are motivated both by concern for their own health and because they care about the environment.
If organic items enjoy only six per cent of market share, that is chiefly the result of the price difference, she believes.
"About a third of consumers have to count their pennies when buying food. Even in rich Switzerland, for some of them that really is essential. For this group, organic produce is a luxury."
But there are also plenty of well-off consumers who are happy to buy poorer quality yoghurt just to save a few cents. The consumer organisation says a better way to save money is to buy seasonal, locally-grown items – and this spares the environment as well.
Stalder says many customers only start thinking about buying organic when they have children, because they are keen to feed them healthily.
But on the whole modern life favours convenience food.
"In their busy lives, most people don’t have, or don’t give themselves, enough time to eat, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to eat badly,” said Stalder.
“Many customers would like the chance to buy something that gives them the feeling that they’ve eaten something worth eating, despite being always in a rush.”
The health argument
Stephan Feige of the marketing consultancy htp St Gallen, told swissinfo.ch that most consumers believe organic food is better for them, even though this argument is no longer often put forward by experts.
Specialists point out that where preservatives are not used, produce may spoil faster, which is certainly not good for the health. They also point out that today even non-organic produce is unlikely to contain traces of damaging chemicals.
This leaves the ecological argument in pride of place: organic production methods are better for the environment than conventional ones.
Organic farming is defined by the international umbrella organisation, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, as “a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects”.
It therefore does not use chemical sprays and artificial fertilisers.end of infobox
In 2011 the retail turnover of organic produce was up by 4.2% on 2010, reaching SFr1.74 billion ($1.81 billion).
The same year, organically grown food accounted for six per cent of the total food market – the highest proportion so far.
Swiss consumers spent SFr221 per head on organic produce in 2011, 4.7% up on 2010.
The Coop supermarket is responsible for about half the turnover in organic produce, and its rival, Migros, for about a quarter.
In Switzerland just over 6,000 farms – nearly 11% of the total - are organic; more than 5,600 of them follow the guidelines of Biosuisse, the umbrella organisation of organic farmers.
In terms of area, just over 11% of all agricultural land is farmed organically.
About three quarters of organic farms are located in mountainous areas, where 19 per cent of agricultural land is farmed organically.
In the valleys, only six per cent of the land is organically farmed. In Graubünden 54% of farms are organic. In canton Schaffhausen, with the smallest proportion, the figure is only 3.5%.
The number of organic farms had been in decline since 2006, but in 2011 more farms announced their intention of turning organic than of abandoning the practice.
Biosuisse was founded in 1981. Its symbol, a bud, is supposed to guarantee that production is totally organic; any processing has spared natural resources as far as possible.end of infobox
(Translated from German by Julia Slater), swissinfo.ch