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What Is Organic?

What is organic Pesticides & fertilisers Organic animal farming Isn't it expensive? Why bother?

Given the power of food marketing, it can be hard to work out what is organic and what's not.

In a recent survey of customers at a farmers' market, over 50% of the people we spoke to believed that the fruit and vegetables at the market were organic. Yet only one stall was selling organic produce - mushrooms. All of the other produce was non-organic.

This really concerned us. The visitors had assumed that, because it was a farmers' market, everything would be organic and, in their words, "safe to eat".

What is organic?

Soil Association Symbol The Soil Association (the UK's main organic regulatory body) says:

Organic systems recognise that our health is directly connected to the health of the food we eat and, ultimately, the health of the soil.
  • Organic farming severely restricts the use of artificial chemical fertilisers and pesticides

  • Instead, organic farmers rely on developing a healthy, fertile soil and growing a mixture of crops

  • Animals are reared without the routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers common in intensive livestock farming.

In standard, non-organic farming, crops are sprayed up to 30 times in a season with a cocktail of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. These chemicals are absorbed by the plants, both through their leaves, fruit and through the soil.

Little testing has been done on the long-term, combined effects of so many chemicals on the human body. However, there is plenty of evidence that they're not good for us. (See why buy organic food for more information).

Pesticides & Fertilisers

In organic farming, farmers use crop rotation (you don't plant the same thing in the same place each year) and other natural methods, to prevent disease and reduce plant pests.

For example, they might grow wheat in a field one year, grow red clover and graze cattle in it the next, to fertilise it, and then grow cabbages the following year.

They use natural fertilisers, such as growing red clover or alfafa, to improve the quality of the soil.

Organic farmers use natural compost (kitchen waste and manure) as additional fertiliser, when needed.

This is what nature has been doing for thousands of years.

In fact, it's what we all used to do, until shortly after the Second World War, when governments were keen to increase harvests quickly, after the end of rationing.

Organic Animal Farming

Daisy the cow Organically farmed animals are reared as free range animals. They have to have access to open air and must have more space in their sheds than intensively-reared animals.

They're not allowed to be fed on Genetically Modified (GM) feeds.

Non-organic animals are often fed GM food.

This does not have to be declared on human food packaging. So you might think you're avoiding GM food, but your milk, eggs and meat products could contain significant traces of GM materials.
Nobody yet understands how this will impact human health. However, studies have been done on the effect of GM food on animals, showing some frightening side effects.

Want to know more? The Ecologist magazine has featured some in-depth articles on the risks of GM food.

Intensively farmed animals are often kept indoors, in cramped spaces. This can lead to more infections, which leads to the routine use of antibiotics. These antibiotics can be passed on to humans when we drink the milk or eat the meat.

Organic animals only have antibiotics as a last resort, which is unusual.

Isn't organic food expensive?

Is organic food expensive? We could ask ourselves, isn't non-organic food too cheap?

If you're interested in the lengths to which farmers are having to go, in order to produce non-organic food to the supermarkets' prices, it's worth reading Felicity Lawrence's "Not On The Label".

Cheap food means more pesticides and fertilisers, underpaid labour and transporting food long distances, from cheaper countries.

Yes, organic food is generally more expensive than supermarket fruit, vegetables and meat. But if more of us switched to organic, then the prices would come down.

Buying direct from the producer, at farmers' markets or at a farm shop, cuts out the middle-man and means you get your organic food cheaper.

Also, you can grow your own. Even the smallest garden or balcony has space for a couple of pots. Every little helps.

Why Bother?

Why bother worrying about what is organic? Surely we've been safely eating non-organic food for years?

Afterall, it's cheaper, prettier and harmless, isn't it?

Find out why people recommend eating organically, whenever you can.

Why buy organic food?

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