More and more people are willing to spend the extra money for organically grown and prepared food, with an Australian industry now worth $2.6 billion annually. So what’s all the fuss about and are there genuine reasons why we should be choosing organic?
We’ve all been there, standing in the supermarket looking at the organic chicken, small and pale in its plastic wrapping and three times the price of the plump conventional chicken alongside it. Or the plastic-wrapped organic broccoli next to its conventional naked offering, and we have wondered is it worth it? If we can afford it and, importantly, if we’re putting our family at risk if we don’t?
What It Means
Organic food is food grown without the use of synthetic or artificially produced pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers. Organic growers use no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the food is not irradiated, meaning it isn’t treated with radiation. Organically grown animals are not kept in cages or feedlots, they’re not fed growth-regulating hormones or routine antibiotics. Less-invasive farming methods are used on organic farms such as crop rotation, using compost as fertiliser and integrating livestock and crop farming. There is now 35 million hectares, or 9.6 percent, of Australian farmland being farmed organically.
The organic-certification system in Australia means farmers and producers need to prove they follow the certification guidelines for three years before they’re accredited to use the certified-organic logo. There are six logos and companies using them are audited annually and randomly. The National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce guidelines are readily available online and are comprehensive and easy to read. It includes sections on building soil health, leaving some non-cultivated areas on the property, free-range and natural habitats for animals and using only a specified list of materials for pest control.
With many food companies trying to jump on the sustainability bandwagon, greenwashing abounds, and there are many other certification systems appearing such as ‘free range’, ‘cage free’ or ‘humane choice’. You will commonly see terms bandied about on packaging which claim products to be environmentally-, earth- or eco-friendly. But only food with the certified-organic logo is guaranteed to be following the strict national-standard organic guidelines.
Another way you can tell if your food is organic is to meet the people who grow it. Talk to the stallholder at the market or visit the farms and market gardens where your food is grown and ask questions like what sort of fertiliser or sprays they might be using.
Most growers will be only too happy to discuss their farming practices and they’ll be pleased someone is interested. They may answer that their food is produced using organic principles rather than using the organic certification system. This could mean a variety of things, such as not using chemicals on their potatoes, or making sure there are no GMOs in their chook food.
Gaining organic certification is a lengthy and expensive process which is good for the consumer, but can be inhibiting for the farmer. As a result, it isn’t unusual for farms to employ practices that meet or even go beyond the current organic-certification standards, without actually achieving certification. It does involve a certain level of trust. But if you’re familiar with the organic-certification standards, you’ll know what questions to ask.
Why Choose Organic
Many studies have found organic food doesn’t necessarily taste better or have better health outcomes for people, certainly in the short term. So why eat it? If there is only one reason, be it that buying organic is supporting growing of food without the toxins in pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers that destroy ecosystems and soil life. There is a high environmental cost to conventional agriculture; overcultivation kills soil life, the use of the herbicide glyphosate kills soil, harms beneficial insects, wildlife and bees, and the blanket spreading of fertilisers leaches into and pollutes our waterways. You may think you are buying cheaper food when you buy non-organic, but the cost to the environment is rarely considered.
Due to its prolonged and widespread use, traces of glyphosate is now found in the air, our drinking water, our food and our bodies, and recent studies have found glyphosate in Australian wholemeal, multigrain, spelt, and white bread. Glyphosate, which is banned in countries like Germany and Saudi Arabia, causes imbalance in the gut bacteria and affects our ability to get rid of environmental toxins. The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has formally classified glyphosate as a ‘probable carcinogen’.
Why It Costs More
It takes more time to grow food organically. For instance, farmers may use more natural methods of pest control like flame and steam weeding, building habitat for pest predators, or creating traps and barriers for pests.
There can be a higher cash outlay for farmers and producers. Buying organic food for their animals, using organic seeds to plant their crops and buying or making organic fertilisers. There is also the cost of the certification process and, as well as the cost of maintaining the standards, employees also need to be educated.
Egg-laying hens, meat chickens and pigs need to be in a free-range situation, which means larger land space and different sheds with indoor and outdoor areas. Processing requires an abattoir certified for organic slaughter which may be further away or more expensive than conventional slaughter. To get started in organic growing, certified land will cost more, or the farmer will need to go through three years of conversion in order to gain certification.
ECONOMIES OF SCALE
In conventional farming, planting large monocrops, using harvesting machinery and using blanket pesticides and herbicides, are all cost-saving measures not available to organic growers.
Next time you are thinking about buying the organic bag of apples at a higher price than the conventional, it’s worth considering all the factors, seen and unseen, tasted and untasted, that your food dollars are contributing to. Not only your fragile and precious gut microbiome, but the equally precious macrobiomes and ecosystems in nature that are significantly affected by our agricultural practices, and therefore our food-buying choices.
The where-you-can approach
IF YOU CAN’T COMMIT TO ONLY EATING ORGANICALLY, TRY TO PRIORITISE THESE:
Spinach, kale, lettuce, celery and cabbage – All leafy foods with large surface areas take in more pesticides and herbicides.
Strawberries, blueberries, grapes, nectarines and peaches – Fruits and berries with thin skins that we eat as well as the flesh.
Apples – With over 40 pests and 10 diseases affecting apples, conventional orchards use far more sprays than organic ones.
Potatoes – To make harvesting easier, non-organic farms often spray herbicide to kill the plants above the ground beforehand.
Tomatoes – Typically large monocrops which require a lot of pest treatment, and the skin of a tomato is often consumed.
To familiarise yourself with the national standards or to find out more about the six government-approved organic certifiers currently in Australia, head to www.agriculture.gov.au.