Organic food grows without artificial chemicals. So no toxic pesticides or herbicides accumulate in your body; no nasty fertilizers contaminate your water supplies; no dodgy growth hormones pollute your meat. Organic means purer than a virgin in a chaste white dress made of snowflakes. Better for you, and better for the environment. Right?
Maybe, maybe not.
Here are six common organic claims to ponder when trying to decide if you want to turn your eating habits toward the organic.
1. There is a clear definition of “organic.”
Although there is a broad consensus, each country has its own certifying body, with different requirements for what can and can’t be labelled “organic”. Some of these organizations are run by government, and others by private sector companies or NGO’s. In some countries they are regulated by law, and in others they aren’t.
Countries such as the UK have more than one certifying body, which – providing they meet a certain base level – can each work to different standards. It’s a proper organic gong show.
And spinning off this are all sorts of clever, manipulative marketing terms that aren’t necessarily regulated at all. You can buy “natural” oats, or “home-grown” spinach. Thanks, but I’d rather my spinach were grown in a field. And what the hell does an unnatural oat look like? Perhaps we are talking supernatural oats, the ghosts of porridge past.
2. “Organic” means entirely organic
Not quite. In the UK and the USA, for example, “organic” means 95% of the ingredients in the food are organic. And in the USA, “made with organic ingredients” means as little as 70% of the ingredients are organic. The remainder can be all sorts of synthetic crap, such as food dyes, starches and gelatin.
The idea that no artificial chemicals are used during production is also misleading. The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) is about as transparent on this as a bucket of prime manure: its definition of organic farming refers merely to the “restricted use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.” Oh. Kay.
3. Buying organic supports small farms
Maybe this was true 30 years ago, when you bought your fruit and veg off your local farmer, and he assured you the carrots were so knobbly “Coz they’z all bein’ organic.” No need for any certification back in the good old days.
But now organic food has gone mainstream. It’s regulated. There’s permits and paperwork and payments gone in to those pesticide-free potatoes. Not all small farms can afford this.
And you are just as likely to find organic produce in supermarkets as in farmers’ markets. Perhaps more so. Which means organic food is big business, and a large demand needs a large supply.
Lots of organic brands are owned by those corporations we love to hate, such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and ConAgra. Check out these cool – and scary – infographics on the structure of the organic food industry in North America.
4. Organic food is expensive
It’s true, organic food is generally more expensive than conventional stuff. Sometimes crazily so. That bunch of organic grapes may well taste sweet and juicy, and might even be healthier for me. At that price the pips should be semi-precious stones, and the grapes should come with a free servant trained in the ancient art of palm frond fanning.
Such disparity may well not be the case for long. Modern farming techniques are super-dependent on oil, which is used to produce the fertilizers and other chemicals needed. As the cost of oil rises, conventionally produced food should become more expensive. Organic farming will have to deal with increased transport costs, but that’s it.
Furthermore, the ever rising demand for organic food should, in theory, lead to a decrease in prices. Here’s hoping, anyway.
5. Organic farming can’t feed the world
As I write this, I can already hear the gnashing of genetically modified teeth, and taste the insecticide that will be used to put me out of my misery.
Many people claim that organic farming is too inefficient to meet the needs of the world’s growing population. That food production must double by 2050, and the only way forward is to bung a load more chemicals at a load more GM franken-crops.
But organizations like the Soil Association disagree with this, claiming there are a number of faulty assumptions. One is that we need to feed the world using our unhealthy, Western style, meat-rich diet.
They reckon that “fairer diets and better distribution of food” is more important than increased production, and that organic farming is perfectly capable of providing for us all, as long as we radically overhaul our relationship with food.
And according to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, if we increased the average agriculture yield across the planet to the level that’s possible using organic farming techniques, we’d be producing around 50% more food anyway.
6. Organic automatically equals good
This is sloppy thinking. Granted, organic farming releases less nastiness into the environment, and promotes biodiversity. Granted, organic food contains fewer toxic chemical residues, and so is probably healthier to eat. Hell, it might even be richer in nutrients, but we’ll let the scientists fight that one out.
But there are a whole host of other factors to take into account, not least all those resources consumed during food production, packaging and distribution. Transporting organic food half way round the world, into another climate and season, seems to defeat the purpose. It’s far more important to eat local, seasonal food.
And if it’s true that “you are what you eat”, I’d rather eat the locally grown Egyptian mango – however it was grown – than the organic one shipped in from abroad.
What do you think about organic food? Share your thoughts in the comments below.