Friday, 12 July 2013

The Big Debate: Organic Food

Much controversy surrounds the benefits of organic foods. Some questions people may pose include, are chemicals used in food production really bad for you? Does “organic” always mean what it says on the label? There have been mis-selling scandals recently, with regular produce being unlawfully sold as organic for higher prices, which haven’t helped public confidence in this more expensive sector of the market.

The term “organic” in this context means produce farmed without the use of synthetic chemicals and pesticides, but in a world where some are starving, artificial means of food production can be more beneficial than is sometimes portrayed. Organic farming is generally seen as a holistic – and somewhat luxurious – method of production, that seeks to preserve the ecosystem, eliminate use of unnatural chemicals and, in the case of livestock, allow for free range rearing.

The Soil Association, the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for ethical food production and farming techniques, defines organic food as “food which is produced using environmentally and animal friendly farming methods on an organic farm.” This puts the focus on environmental and animal welfare. It doesn’t count as organic if you grow it in your garden – this would be called “home-grown”. Organic produce has to pass strict certification standards, and these vary from country to country. 
Soil Association Organic Logo

There is no single logo to denote organic food, but rather each producer will assign its own to organically-certified produce. 

Organic shoppers used to buy their food directly from the farmers, but at that time there were no certification standards. Whole food stores and co-operatives popularised organic produce among the general public, and ushered in the need for independent criteria. Some examples of these shops are Whole Foods Market, Planet Organic and As Nature Intended. Currently, 86% of households buy organic products and 4.2% of UK farmland is organically managed.

The organic food as an industry has boomed since the 1940s when it was conceived, but has recently been experiencing a reduced share of the market. Organic food sales increased from just over £100 million in 1993/94 to £1.21 billion in 2004 (an 11% increase on 2003).

However, in 2010, UK sales of organic products fell 5.9% to £1.73 billion. Some attribute this to the general public tightening their belts during the recession, but decreased confidence in the benefits of organic produce has certainly played its part.

In the past, there has been what is known as a “halo effect” surrounding organic food, which means that consumers think it is healthier or lower in calories, and therefore a better option to buy. This is a myth that has been dispelled in recent years. Organic food is, essentially, just the same as regular produce.

On the other hand, many studies have shown that organic food tends to taste better, and that there are in fact minimal health benefits:

  • Raw organic milk possibly contains significantly more omega-3 fatty acids

  • Organic chicken contains higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids than regular chicken

  • Organic produce holds 30% lower risk of contamination by pesticide residue than regular produce

In general, it seems that organic food is not healthier than conventionally produced food, but there have been no studies following the long-term health of people upholding organic diets versus those who have not. Whether or not to buy organic food is a completely personal choice. 

What is not in doubt is that going organic is better for the environment, and, in the case of meat, for the livestock. Think carefully before you buy!

 Find out more here

By Catherine Heath

EU Organic Logo

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