As we become more and more health conscious, we are being increasingly drawn to foods that are labelled “organic”. After all, without the use of pesticides and chemicals, they are surely much better for our bodies, to say nothing of helping protect the environment. Well, the organic label may not be all that it seems.
Many of us place a lot of weight on an organic label when making our food choices. But the organic label tells us little about a long list of issues that are becoming increasingly important. Certainly it will indicate that certain types of pesticides have not been used, which of course is vitally important, but it tells us very little about sustainability, nutritional values or the social and environmental impact of our food choices. Increasingly, the organic label has become a marketing tool, and consumers’ desire to feel like they are doing the right thing, but confusion over what it actually means, has resulted in a food marketers’ dream. And, of course, the organic label carries a price premium.
But what regulations actually define what “organic” is? In the UK the organic food labelling rules are strict, and governed by the EU. To carry the organic label, 95% of ingredients must be deemed organic, and food producers must be certified by one of nine regulatory bodies. To label a product as organic that does not meet the regulations is against the law. If you are a food producer or farmer, you must avoid artificial fertilisers and pesticides, use crop rotation to maintain soil fertility, use only approved materials to control pests and disease and use a limited number of approved products in the processing of organic food.
But around the world, the regulations are less strict. In the US, for example, only 70% of ingredients must be organic to merit an organic label. So with a large variance of regulations, how can we be sure that what we are buying is truly organic? And given that goods may have to travel thousands of miles to arrive on our supermarket shelves, are there more important questions we should be asking?
Health conscious consumers, perhaps vegans especially, generally care about the nutritional content of their food. Nutrients are the least stable part of our food – the moment we harvest a fruit or vegetable, it starts to decompose and lose its nutritional value. While cold storage helps slow the process, US research has shown that produce stored in a refrigerated environment for just one week loses between 15% (green peas) and 77% (green beans) of its vitamin C content. And given the vast distances that much of our food has to travel, nutritional loss is inevitable, no matter how organic a product is deemed to be. In the UK, 72% of the land mass is utilised for agricultural practices, yet we import nearly 50% of our food. And that means that for every mile it travels, its nutritional values are dropping.
So while it is, in my mind, essential that we should try and consume organic produce as much as possible, for the benefits of our health and our environment, there are other important questions that we should be asking as well. Is it pesticide free and nutrient dense? Does it offer peak flavour and freshness and is it low on food-miles? Iit packaging free and sustainable? And perhaps most importantly – is it sustainable and better for both my own health and that of the planet? Only by receiving positive responses to these questions can we be sure that we are buying foods that are truly organic.