What Does Organic Actually Mean?

What does organic actually mean and what’s the difference between organic and non-organic fruit and vegetables? Catherine Fookes of Organic UK explains all…

What is organic food and why should we be eating it?

Organic is about what’s in your food and how it’s been grown. When you buy organic, you know exactly what’s in there. GM crops and ingredients are banned in organic farming standards as are hydrogenated fats, artificial pesticides and additives like aspartame, tartrazine and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are not permitted either. In terms of the environment, organic farming works with nature as it uses fewer pesticides and helps build the fertility of the soil. Research has found that there is 50% more wildlife on organic farms so it’s bringing wildlife back into the agricultural landscape.

Often produce in supermarkets is imported organic, but at a local market it could be just local but not organic. What should one do in this dilemma?

The best thing to buy is local and organic but I know it’s not always possible. The organic market is growing really well – at 5.6% per year – and the UK now needs to encourage more farmers to convert to organic so we can meet more of that growing demand ourselves. Unfortunately, the UK’s self-sufficiency in food has plummeted from over 75% in the 1980s to only 61% now, according to Defra. So we need to do more to encourage home-grown organic.

How about trying to buy your local organic veg (via a box scheme or a Food Assembly) where you will be able to choose from a huge amount of local organic produce on offer – or your local independent store. Or, simply google your local organic farmer and see what you can find!

Some small organic producers are producing products organically but can’t afford to be certified. What are your thoughts on this?

There could be a different way of certifying for these kinds of producers. For example, group certification for smaller producers so they can share the costs of certification, as for some produces its prohibitive.

Is organic healthier?

I tend to use my common sense here. For fruit and veg, I find the fact that it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides really reassuring for my family. It’s very difficult to say whether this means “organic is healthier.” For me personally, I feel reassured by buying organic. I think we would all do well to follow this piece of advice from food journalist Michael Pollan: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants”.

Is there a difference in taste?

I think that’s so subjective! For me, yes, especially in things like carrots.

If there are 5 things people should really buy organic, what should they be?

It depends to some extent on your concerns about the food system. I have many concerns – from farmers getting a fair price, to the environment and also the prevalence of pesticide residues in non-organic food and drink. The lack of pesticides is one of the key reasons that people choose organic. And consumers often start their organic buying with fresh produce, and this information will help you see why.

Pesticides Action Network UK did some research in 2013 analysing the UK government’s own pesticide residue reporting so that people could understand it and see the trends. The government’s Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues or “PRiF” tests fruit, vegetables and other products for pesticide residues each quarter but the data isn’t presented in a user-friendly way so PAN UK analysed the results instead. The report is essential reading and shows that as much as 46% of the food we consume contains residues of one or more pesticides. This figure has increased every year and has almost doubled since 2003 when it was 25%. The report showed the products with the worst pesticide residues were:

  • Oranges
  • Flour
  • Pears
  • Pineapples
  • Grapes

Why is organic often more expensive?

Because it costs more to produce. Fruit and veg production as well as arable production is more labour intensive as weeds can’t simply be sprayed away. So, it’s partly the production and partly down to the mark-up shops put on organic. Here at the Organic UK we want everyone to be able to afford organic. Good food is a right not a privilege.

What exciting things are happening in organic?

Some of our member brands are either going totally vegan – such as Tideford Organics – or are bringing out vegan varieties of their products. It’s an exciting time to be involved in food. Organic consumers cook from scratch, are really into clean eating and increasingly are thinking about the impact on the planet of the food they eat. So veganism and organic really goes hand in hand.

To learn more about organic you can read more on the Organic UK website.

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