There is no doubt that organic food has increased in popularity over the last two decades, especially for fresh produce. Figures show that the majority of consumers buy organic food at least occasionally. But, what are the real benefits?
Organic and non-organic
The two main types are farming are often referred to as ‘organic’ and ‘conventional’ with ‘conventional’ referring to foods grown with synthetic chemicals. I prefer not to use the term ‘conventional’ as to me it implies a ‘normal’ way to grow produce, or seems to imply the way we have ‘always’ farmed and that organic is something new. However, organic is not a new way of farming. For thousands of years, farming occurred without the use of chemicals. So, in fact, organic used to be the ‘conventional’ way. For this reason, I prefer to call the two forms of farming as organic and non-organic.
What does organic mean?
Organic fresh produce is food that is produced with no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Instead farmers use crop rotation, organic compost, and natural methods of pest and weed control (eg other plants, insects). Livestock must be free range (ie no caged chickens, no sow stalls), pasture (grass) fed, and grown without synthetic growth hormones or fed growth promotants, limiting vaccine use and not using routine antibiotics. Breeding is done using natural methods. Furthermore, animal welfare is maintained during transportation and in abattoirs. Live export is prohibited under organic certified operations. Genetically modified crops or materials, nanotechnology and irradiation are also not allowed. So, for foods to be sold as ‘certified organic’ producers need to follow a strict Australian Standard on the way they are grown, produced, distributed, marketed and labelled, as well as maintaining records and periodic inspections.
Why are consumers buying organic?
The top 10 reasons why consumers buy organic food are: pesticide free, additive free, environmentally friendly, hormone and antibiotic free, non GMO, more nutritious, knowing where it comes from, taste, improved soil quality and animal welfare.
So, what organic fresh produce are people buying?
The most common organic foods purchased are fruit and vegetables. Figures from 2012 show 35% of money spent on organic food is for vegetables, 17% on fruit, 15% on beef, 10% grains, 7% poultry, 8% milk, 4% honey and 8% on other food items. Major supermarkets account for around 75% of all organic sales.
What about organic products?
For a grocery item to be certified organic, the majority of its ingredients must come from organic sources. So, organic bread which is made up of organic flour, but non-organic salt and yeast are allowed. Organic products has also entered the realm of beauty products and pet food.
What are the advantages of buying organic?
The main benefits of buying organic produce fall into two main categories – good for our health and the health of the earth.
When it comes to our health, organic food
- reduces our chemical load
We need little convincing when it comes to the benefits of reducing pesticides. In a study in Washington, children were fed at least 75% of their food intake as organic food and it was found that they had one-sixth the level of pesticide by-products in their urine compared to children on a ‘conventional’ food diet
- tastes better
Some consumers buy organic because they believe it tastes better. Organic food doesn’t have the same shelf life as non-organic. Perhaps for that reason, only seasonal foods are available, they are picked ripe, travel less, are sold and consumed sooner and for all of these reasons, they have more taste. Flavours of fruits and vegetables are subtle. The smell and taste of chemicals is not. Even with washing (especially fruits since they are usually eaten raw, and even more so, fragile fruits as they are harder to wash thoroughly) can taste ‘chemical-ish.’ Have you ever eaten a heavily sprayed strawberry and gone “Blahhh!” because all you could taste was the chemicals used to produce it? The subtle fragrance and sweetness of the strawberry has been overpowered by the taste of the chemicals used to produce it. The improved taste of organic produce enhances our enjoyment of food, especially fruit and vegetables, helping us eat better.
As well as the avoidance of synthetic chemicals, non-organic farming seeks to preserve the environment.
- integrity of the soil
Whilst non-organic farming can lead to reduced soil fertility, through the use of companion planting, composting and crop rotation, organic farming can lead to soil vitality and long term sustainability
For organic produce, farms must show they are water efficient. Reducing run-off into nearby waterways also protects the ecosystems of local streams, rivers, creeks
- biodiversity protection
Whilst pesticides and fertilisers kill insects that don’t harm the crops as well as those that do, organic farming reduces the potential impact on biodiversity
Non-organic food is cheaper (or so we think) because we are calculating the cost of production based on chemicals and labour. If we were to factor in the cost of nature’s resources, the impact of its unsustainable production and effect on the environment, we’d more than likely get the scales tipping in favour of organic.
Is organic produce more nutritious?
I often get asked if there is any advantage to buying organic. In particular, if there are nutritional benefits of buying organic, or whether organically grown foods have a higher vitamin and mineral content than their non-organic grown counterparts. Although many believe that organic food is more nutritious, studies have found little or no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic produce.
We also need to be careful how we interpret the results of studies showing organic produce having a higher nutrient content. If, for example, a study were to show that organic apples are higher in vitamin C, we can’t necessary extrapolate that all apples grown organically are higher in vitamin C. Nutrient levels depend on so many factors besides the farming method used. It depends on plant variety, soil nutrients and condition, climate, season, water quality, how ripe the food was when it was picked as well as how and where the food was stored until it was consumed.
So, when choosing between organic and non-organic, buy as much organic produce as your shopping budget allows, where possible, choose organic for delicate fruits and vegetables that are harder to wash thoroughly and be guided by taste. Also consider substituting purchased non-organic produce with home grown produce (eg green leafy vegetables, lettuce, herbs) – you’ll save some money as well as reap the benefits of eating organic!