What is organic food? The real question should be how does food become classed?
If you flick through a dictionary you may find the word organic defined thus: “Relating to or derived from living matter.” In that case, all food is organic. However, during the last few decades, the term has “grown” to mean something more.
When people talk about food that is classed in this way, what they are really referring to is food that had been produced using organic farming methods. It’s impossible to class chemical fertilizers and pesticides as being derived from living matter. When you look at it that way, things start to make a bit more sense.
So, food is classed as organic when it’s produced via farming methods. Unfortunately, things are not quite so clear-cut.
Organic Food: What the Label Really Means
That food label that proudly boasts the word “organic” does not always have the same significance.
Organic Food in the UK
In the UK, organic food production standards fall under the jurisdiction of the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
According to DEFRA:
“Organic food is the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilizers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives.”
DEFRA also makes it clear the use of irradiation and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are prohibited by legislation. As are products produced from or by GMOs.
So, does an organic food label in the UK mean the food that bears it is 100% free of the aforementioned nasties? The simple answer is no.
DEFRA regulations state only 95% of the ingredients have to come from organically produced plants or animals.
However, EU rules require all organic food suppliers be approved by an official certification body. This entails regular inspections to make sure everything complies to the required standards.
Organic Food in the US
In the US, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for governing organic food standards.
Again, that label that displays the word “organic” actually only means 95% of the ingredients were produced and processed using organic methods.
What the label is telling you is 95% of the product is free from synthetic additives such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and dyes.
It’s also letting you know 95% of the product has not been processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or GMOs. The other 5% may contain these things but only if they are on the approved list.
However, some food in the US bears a label that proudly states “100% Organic.” That means all the contents were produced using organic methods.
It’s not easy to produce a product that’s 100% organic. In fact, most of them only contain one ingredient.
So what of the labels that say “made with organic ingredients”?
Labels that say this are telling you the products contain 70% to 90% organic ingredients.
Unlike foods that bare an organic or 100% organic label, foods that are marked as being made with organic ingredients are not permitted to include the USDA Organic Seal.
Putting the Labels into Perspective
Regardless of whether a product bears a label that states it’s organic or 100% organic, if it’s a single item such as a cabbage, apple or pear, it will be 100% organic. It can’t be any other because it will have been grown using organic farming methods.
However, in the case of a bag of frozen mixed vegetables or a fruit salad, for instance, 5% of the contents may not be organic at all.
Why is Organic Food So Expensive?
Be it a slice of meat, fruit, vegetables, or dairy products, organic food is food as nature intended it to be.
The farmers who farm their land or rear their beasts in this way don’t need to pay for hormones, chemical fertilizers, or synthetic pesticides. That should make their products cheaper, right? Wrong!
Take a walk down the organic aisle of any supermarket and look at the prices of the product. Then take a look at the cost of the “normal” equivalent. Organic food tends to be more expensive. Often 20% to 100% more than non-organic alternatives. Why is this?
There’s a simple answer. Producing food the natural way is more expensive for farmers to do. In fact, the costs can add up in all sorts of unexpected ways. It’s only natural that farmers pass the expense on to their customers.
To a lesser extent, the high cost comes down to a case of supply and demand. Farmers who use organic farming methods are in the minority, but there is a big demand for this type of food. That means farmers who wish to do so can “demand” more money if they wish to do so.
What Organic Farming Means from the Farmers’ Point of View
Chemicals Vs Labor
Modern fertilizers and pesticides may not be the natural way to go, but they get the job done. Furthermore, they do it very efficiently and they work fast.
When farmers remove them from the equation, their jobs become harder. For instance, instead of spraying their land, they have to spend time weeding it. That may necessitate the need for extra staff and, of course, additional salaries.
Agricultural farmers may also find they lose more of their crops to pests.
Cash Crop Vs Cover Crop
Agricultural farmers’ fields don’t make them any money when they are stood idle. They need to produce a crop. More specifically, they need to produce a “cash crop.” This is crop the farmer can take to market such as corn, potatoes, or beets.
Cash crops take nutrients from the ground. These have to be replaced and using man-made fertilizers is a good way to do it.
An alternative is to rotate cash crops with “cover crops” to return nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil.
Cover crops have no market value but raising them costs farmers time and money.
Chemical Fertilizer Vs Natural Fertilizer
Chemical fertilizers are very efficient and easy to use. They are also much cheaper than many natural alternatives such as animal manure.
Animal manure can be good for enriching the soil, but it costs more to buy. The transport costs also tend to be higher and it can be more difficult to apply to the ground.
Organic Certification Costs
Acquiring the necessary certification can present further costs to farmers. It’s not cheap and may entail buying new equipment or modifying their facilities.
Certification also requires extensive record keeping. This takes up more time and generally entails the need for extra staff.
Then there’s the cost of inspection fees. In the US, this is generally $400-$2,000 per year.
Why Do People Buy Organic Food?
No doubt, back in the 90s, when organic food began getting more attention, some people may have jumped on the bandwagon because it was seen as the trendy thing to do.
There may still be those who buy food of this nature due to a desire to be a member of the “in-crowd.”
The truth is, people choose to buy this type of food for a number of different reasons.
Some of the more popular ones include:
- Less Environmental Impact: Organic farming methods are certainly more environmentally friendly. A lot of people feel deeply about issues of this nature. As a species, man’s environmental impact on the planet is not something to be proud of. There’s a lot of interest in going green, reducing the carbon footprint, and being kinder to the planet in general.
- A Wish for a Clean Diet: Some people believe food that is grown in the normal way may flood their bodies with undesirable chemicals and hormones.
- They Believe it’s More Nutritious: This is a very common belief among those who favor this type of food.
- They Think it Tastes Better: Does organic food really taste better? Many people say so, but there is no way to prove the claim. It’s one of those things that comes down to a matter of personal opinion
What Are the Real Benefits of Eating Organic Food?
Although there’s a lot to be said for adopting more environmentally-friendly farming methods, the widespread belief that organic food is better for you is an exaggeration. What’s more, a number of studies show this.
In 2012, researchers at Stanford University published a high-profile clinical review involving over 200 studies. At the time, the review got a lot of media attention and it’s still regularly referenced.
After a thorough examination of the data, the researchers’ conclusion rocked the boat. They said there is no strong evidence that organic food is significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.
However, the researchers were happy to admit eating organic foods may reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pesticide residues.
An article published later the same year in Environmental Health Perspectives criticizes the review. The author states it omits relevant studies and overinterprets some of the data.
It’s important to remember this is only one man’s opinion. However, he does make some interesting points.
One of the more interesting ones concerns the health risks farming with chemicals can present to agricultural workers.
He points out that, although high doses of pesticide are unlikely to enter consumers bodies as food residue, agricultural workers are exposed to greater amounts.
Arguments for and Against Sustainability
These days there is a lot of talk about “sustainability” and how good it is for the environment. In the long run, organic foods may not be sustainable because they have to be non-GMO.
Some people argue growing the same things over and over again makes the food supply vulnerable.
This argument is often supported by referencing the Great Famine that occurred in Ireland between 1845 and 1849.
Then as now, potatoes were an important food. When the Irish potato crops were decimated by potato blight it severely reduced the population of the country. Many who did not succumb to the famine left the country in search of pastures new.
Even before the Great Famine, potato crops had been failing. Potato blight has affected many other countries of the world as well and it’s a problem that has never entirely gone away.
GMO potatoes are engineered to resist potato blight. One species that carries a gene that makes it resistant to blight also helps farmers to reduce fungicide usage by up to 90%.
Although GMO is often seen as a dirty word, GMO products are genetically adjusted to be stronger and more disease resistant. They can thrive where the alternatives fail, so there are relevant arguments from both sides of the fence.
Should I Be Buying Organic Food?
The choice of buying or not buying organic food is a personal one.
If you have strong feelings about the use of GMO, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers, you will no doubt be strongly biased towards organic food.
However, if you are considering buying food of this nature in the belief that it is more nutritious, you should think again. Research shows the nutritional content is more or less the same as any other type of food.
There is evidence that eating organic food may reduce exposure to chemicals and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The thing is, the amount present in the alternatives is minimal anyway.
As for the taste, there could be advantages, but there is no proof.
The best thing to do is to sit and think about all the pros and cons. Weigh up the alleged benefits against the likely benefits. If you think going organic offers benefits that justify the extra expense, give it a go. If you don’t let the idea go instead.
Most people will see more benefit by improving their overall diet and making healthy food options. A diet that is low in fat and sugar and high in nutrition is always a good way to support health and vitality. Going organic is just an additional option.