Let’s talk about organic food. The term ‘organic’ refers to all living organisms (or derived from) that contain carbon. The term itself probably does not mean a great deal to most of us. However, what this may explain is the scope this term has offered for savvy food and beverage manufacturers to get away with (or attempted to) in labelling their product ‘organic’. A ludicrous example of such misuse is the labelling of some bottled water brands ‘organic’. Water does not contain carbon, nor can it be certified organic, so thank goodness that one was brought to consumer’s attention, particularly if we were paying a price premium for that claim. It is important to realise here, that the labeling of foods is largely self-regulated and it’s often only a competitor or a consumer/s that catches a manufacturer out (think of the product Ribena being caught out by high school students in NZ over misleading claims of Vitamin C content on the label – none was detected during the science experiment).

So leaving the science speak behind, let’s focus on certified organic foods, derived from organic farming practices. Organic and farming were first linked together back in the 1940’s. However, it wasn’t until Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was released in 1962, did modern organic practice and the environmental movement at large gain recognition. For those who are not familiar with Silent Spring, this book first identified the mass death of birds (the sound of Spring), following the widespread and indiscriminate use of DDT to kill mosquitoes in many countries (routinely sprayed overhead and at street level in residential streets) (Image of book taken from Rachel Carson.org). I have seen old footage of people standing in the streets of the US, being sprayed with DDT, as ‘proof’ it was safe (manufacturers propaganda). Needless to say, DDT was banned in many countries from the 1970’s onwards (Australia not until 1987 – and known to remain in soil for up to 15 years).

Our grandparents most probably farmed their vegie patch ‘organically’, however the introduction of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides to increase crop yields in a short time frame became common with conventional farming practices. Organic farming instead encourages holistic production, with consideration for biodiversity, biological cycles and prohibits the use of synthetic compounds. Fertilisers, pesticides etc. are used in organic farming, however, they are limited to a specific list of natural products. Organic farming also places a heavy reliance upon crop rotation (to reduce insect infestation), companion planting and composting. It is also important to note here that although, the term ‘natural’ is used in a range of contexts (particularly on food and cosmetic labelling), it cannot be automatically assumed to be safe. In theory, I could claim arsenic to be natural, as it naturally occurs in the environment, yet it is one of the most poisonous compounds known to man! That aside, the natural inputs in organic farming are far better for the environment, by replenishing the soil, rather than depleting it, far better for the farmer, who does not need to handle synthetic chemicals and it takes animal welfare seriously, rather than being tokenistic.

In Australia, there are seven organisations certifying organically farmed foodstuffs. A farmer must earn and maintain their certified organic status (often at a substantial financial cost). It can take up to ten years for a farm to earn this certified status, particularly if they have farmed previously using synthetic chemicals, as these remain in trace amounts in the soil for years. I once saw a documentary on a couple trying to earn certified organic status on their berry farm in Tasmania. While in transition between the two farming techniques, from an ethical perspective, farmers shouldn’t charge organically grown prices, but the higher costs of farming organically, with potentially lower yields, can break the bank, so to speak. This couple finally became certified after years of trying, to only then separate, largely owed to the stress of the process. To me, this really represented the ‘true’ cost of farming, in particular, organically. So if you are buying packaged organic food, make sure it has a certification logo. If it is unpackaged (i.e. fruit and vegetables) don’t be afraid to ask who is the certifying organisation is – particularly if you are paying a price premium for it. I have included the most common of Australian certified organic logos to help with recognition (source: Google images).

This topic is too large to condense into one blog and I feel that if we are to tackle the topic of organic food, then it needs to be done thoroughly, given the amount of misinformation that circulates about organic food. I would like to point out one last thing though, while we are discussing the application of chemicals to our fruit and vegetable crops. Whether they are synthetic (used on convention produce, i.e. what is widely available at our local shops) or naturally derived, it is really important to wash them before consuming. When the Australian Government tests the minimum residual levels (of chemicals) remaining on our fruit and vegetables, to ensure these levels are not exceeded, it is done so AFTER being washed. Although we would like to trust our food producers are doing the right thing (particularly imported), there are reasons why the Government tests this way…