Digesting Organic Food – Part Two

In Part I we discussed among other things, how the term ‘organic’ has the potential for labelling misuse, notably within the food and cosmetic industries.  The majority of dialogue about organic food currently focuses on whether organic food is nutritionally better for you (in general terms, there are no significant differences between organically and conventionally grown produce from a nutritional perspective, although there are a couple of exceptions to this). This is a source of curiosity to me, as it is often where the debate begins and ends, typically overlooking many untold truths about certified organic foods. I am not sure that even the organic food movement signed up to be the ‘miracle’ food from a nutritional perspective.


To me, certified organic food is about providing farmers with an alternative to farming conventionally, and selling in a market place dictated by the duopoly that is Coles and Woolworths, who are renowned for paying under market value for fresh produce. Organic farming provides a fair price to the farmer for foodstuff that is not mass-produced in a monoculture. Monocultures are the perfect host for insect and weed infestations, thus furthering the need for synthetic herbicides and insecticides to address this problem. Organic farming attempts to rely on more natural practices such as companion planting, crop rotation and putting nutrients back into the earth, rather than simply upping the need for more synthetic fertiliser, to compensate for the nutrient loss from limited cross rotation. Organic farmers do not need to handle these synthetic substances, which potentially enhances, not only the safety of their work environment, but also their general health. Organic farming also takes animal welfare seriously. Cattle cannot be kept in feed-lots, nor can chickens be kept in cages.  Organic animal husbandry also does not allow for the use of growth-regulating drugs, hormones, antibiotics and steroids, which are commonly used in mainstream animal farming.



My final point on the truths about certified organic foods is the guarantee that it is totally void of any GM-ingredients. I appreciate that GM may not be on everyone’s radar currently. In part, this may be owed to the fact that up until 2008 we had a moratorium on GM crops in Australia.  Today only a limited number of GM crops are grown in WA, NSW and Victoria, including cotton and canola. It is however unreasonable to deduce that GM ingredients are not in our food supply chain, because they are. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) permits a wide range of GM ingredients to be imported into Australia, such as soybeans, rice, potatoes and corn. We are unaware of their use largely because food manufacturers do not need to declare their presence, if they have been highly refined. Let’s take canola as an example of a GM food grown and sold in our food supply chain in Australia. Primarily converted into oil for use in many processed foods, canola oil is often labelled under the guise of vegetable oil on food labels, allowing it to go undetected, due to current lapse GM labelling laws in Australia on highly refined GM ingredients.



An organic farmer in WA is currently suing a neighbouring GM canola farm for contaminating his farm that resulted in the indefinite loss of his organic certification status from NASAA. Monsanto, who owns the patent on the GM canola seeds, insists on a no-liability agreement with its customers (farmers), making the company immune from such issues. However, in a reverse scenario, Monsanto have been known to sue farmers whose crops have been contaminated by their seeds, on the basis of growing GM without buying the seed from them. This will be a landmark case in Australia, which will set precedent for similar cases in the future.



The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an American-based organisation has released a list of 12 of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables from a pesticide perspective. While acknowledging differences, it may still be of some use, given the specific growing requirements for fruit and vegetables and the susceptibility of particular fruits and vegetables to certain pest infestations. Purchasing organic food may be perceived to be beyond many people’s budgets, particularly when raising a family on a single income. However, for others who may like to purchase some organic food lines, perhaps a good starting point to reduce pesticide intake is selecting an organic alternative to the following Dirty Dozen™, as per the EWG (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php):

  • apples;
  • celery;
  • cherry tomatoes;
  • cucumbers;
  • grapes;
  • hot peppers (chili);
  • nectarines;
  • peaches;
  • potatoes;
  • spinach;
  • strawberries;
  • capsicum;
  • kale;
  • zucchini.

(Images courtesy of Google images)

In closing, I feel it is important to highlight that buying certified organic is not always the best option for the environment. For example, the availability of an out-of-season certified organic fruit or vegetable, airfreighted from interstate or overseas, with significant food miles attached to it, may have more adverse environmental impacts in the transportation stage of the supply chain, than the perceived benefits of farming organically. Joan Gussow, a maven in food policy and the localisation of food, brought to our attention that in the US, in particular, (with Australia, no doubt to follow suit, particularly with Woolworths taking ownership of Macro), that the organic farming model is now being dominated by big agri-businesses, who can employ migrant workers, cultivate and transport produce around America, cheaper than the small organic grower in your next suburb. The organic food sector is appealing to big business, as it is financially lucrative. However, yet again, it is missing the point about buying and supporting local, the negative impacts of food miles, and a return to an appreciation of seasonal produce.



We hope this had provided you with a deeper insight into certified organic food.