Many people would be surprised to learn that there isn't any legal definition of the word "organic", and it doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. Most people agree, however, that it denotes a method of farming that works in harmony with the environment. There are certification bodies that have their own detailed definition of "organic". The main certification body in the UK is the Soil Association, and food produced under this label has to meet strict production criteria:
- The use of synthetic pesticides is forbidden. Only a handful of natural pesticides and fertilisers are allowed.
- No artificial colours or preservatives are allowed in organic foods.
- No genetic modification or irradiation.
- No routine use of antibiotics in livestock production.
- Animals are fed a natural diet, with as much access to outdoors as possible and in lower stocking densities.
When did the organic movement start?
In the pre-industrial era, all food was produced in a way which we would consider organic: without a reliance on chemicals to boost production and minimize the hazards of pests attacking crops. Farms were small; nutrients were replenished in the soil by crop and animal rotation, and the avoidance of monocultures meant it was less likely that insect infestations or diseases would wipe out vast amounts of produce. The first signs that an organic movement was developing began in the early 1900s as a reaction against increasingly industrialised farming methods. It was only in the 1980s, however, that consumer pressure led to the introduction of certification bodies, and since then, the popularity of organic over industrially produced food has grown year on year.
Is organic food more nutritious?
The results of studies have been inconsistent. Nutrient density can be hard to quantify, as it depends on what measures are used. It also depends on many factors, such as weather patterns and the natural soil quality that varies from place to place. Generally, organic produce will contain less water, so by weight, nutrient and calorific density is higher, and several studies have shown higher concentration of beneficial nutrients such as antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids in animal products. What is without doubt, however, is that organically produced food contains less chemical residues. The issue of how damaging these residues are to health in small quantities is controversial, but they certainly don't make foods grown with pesticides any more nutritious.
Does organic food taste better?
There are many things that affect how good produce will taste, including freshness, ripeness, where a crop is grown, and whether the weather has been favourable to any particular crop in any given year. As taste is so subjective, it is hard to qualify through scientific testing, but proponents think that organic food does taste better, in particular root vegetables and animal produce.
Is organic food better for the environment?
Organic farms have 50% more bird, insect and plant life than conventional farms. Some endangered species of insects and butterflies, which are harmless to crops but nevertheless are killed through pesticide use, are able to thrive on organic farms. Organic farming is better for the local environment as there are no run-off pesticides polluting waterways. The pollution caused by large-scale conventional farming can decimate fish populations as well as cause algae blooms and contaminate our water supply. Also, healthy soil, which is the basis of organic farming, is richer in carbon than nutrient depleted soil. This takes carbon out of the atmosphere, thus reducing greenhouse gasses.
Isn't organic the same as free-range?
The standards of organic farming go far beyond those of free-range farming:
- Livestock densities are significantly lower in organic farming, and the rules are very strict: laying hens are kept in groups no larger than 2000 birds, and those reared for meat are kept in densities lower than 1000. Intensively reared chickens can be kept in groups as large as 30,000, or 16,000 for free-range birds. Organic chickens must be given easy and continuous daytime access to outdoors. There are more pop-holes to allow access in organic versus free-range poultry farming, and in smaller flocks, it is easy for the chickens to reach outdoor areas. As free-range birds are kept in larger flocks, it can be difficult for them to find their way outside with so many other birds in the same shed. Free-range birds are also only given up to four square metres of space per bird, but organic standards require ten square metres.
- Organic chickens have a life that is approximately twice as long as intensively reared birds (average 81 days instead of 42), and the rearing of fast-growing breeds that suffer from skeletal problems due to their bones growing too slowly for their weight is forbidden. Beak-trimming, which is painful and distressing to the bird and prevents them from performing natural pecking behaviours, is banned under organic farming, but still allowed under free-range farming.
- The amount of outdoor access necessary to qualify as organic is very presciptive for other animals too. Organic cows must spend a minimum of 200 days a year on pasture and be outside whenever weather conditions allow. On average they spend 215 days a year outside. When weather conditions mean they need to be kept indoors, they are housed in well-bedded, spacious barns.
- Feed for all animals has to be certified organic, and as close to the animal's natural diet as possible. While chickens naturally eat grains, non-organic cows often also eat an entirely grain-based diet which is unnatural for them, leading to digestive problems. Organic cows must eat a diet that is at least 60% grass-based, which minimises digestive distress. Their meat and milk has a higher ratio of omega 3 fatty acids which is obtained through the grass they eat. Grain-fed cattle have a higher ratio of omega 6 fatty acids in their milk and meat, which is already over-abundant in our diet.
- Many practices in pig farming are not allowed under organic standards. 70-75% of non-organically reared pigs are kept indoors their entire lives; over 80% of them have their tails cut off to prevent other distressed pigs confined in small sheds biting their tails and causing infection. Nose-ringing to prevent natural rooting behaviour is also common. More than half of these pigs are also kept in narrow farrowing crates to give birth, which are too small to allow the pig to turn around and express their natural maternal instincts. They are kept there until their litter is weaned. Under organic standards, tail docking and nose-ringing is forbidden, as are farrowing crates. Pigs are kept in family groups with free access to outdoors when weather conditions allow. Indoor shelter is spacious, with plenty of straw bedding.
- Routine use of antibiotics is forbidden and sick animals are treated away from the group to reduce the risk of disease spreading.
- There are strict rules regarding the welfare of organically-reared animals prior to slaughtering, intended to minimise distress.
Is being organic just about food?
No. The Soil Association has strict criteria to allow certification of beauty and personal care products, as well as natural fibres such as cotton and wool. As well as being grown without using pesticides, beauty products are not tested on animals and don't contain synthetic ingredients or nano particles. They must be sustainably produced, biodegradable, and packing must maximise use of recycled material.
What about supermarket organic food?
Although supermarkets have been largely responsible for the rise in organic sales, the supermarkets buying into the organic movement hasn't been all good news. Their organically produced food is often imported, travelling similar food miles to conventionally grown produce. Local organic food, such as that sourced at True Food, will be better for the environment as well as fresher.
Is everything True Food stocks organic?
Not strictly. True Food also supports small local growers who follow organic production methods but are too small to be able to manage the considerable expense of getting organic certification (e.g. Greenbroom vegetables, Village Maid cheeses). Local honey and Tutu's sauces are not certified organic but are high quality products using only natural ingredients from this area, and salt is not organic (as it cannot be). Nevertheless, you can be sure that whatever you buy at True Food has been grown in the best interests of animal welfare, the environment, ethical production and our health!