The rise of organic living has boomed in popularity the last few years. It carries with it many positive connotations, in that, eating organic is better for us, and for the environment. From a marketing perspective, it's a powerful term, with many companies wearing the organic badge proudly stamped across their products. I'm a prime target for this - if a product is labelled organic I naturally dig it, BUT there's also the realisation that "organic" does not equal glorified health product - organic cookies are still cookies, and treats are still treats (same deal with the natural sugars verses refined sugars saga. But I digress).
Commonly purchased organic foods include fruits, veggies, meat and dairy products, but nowadays many processed foods can become certified organic too, depending on the origin of their ingredients.
So what does organic really mean?
If a food, or its ingredients, are organic, it means they've been produced by agricultural practices that exclude the use of synthetic materials (e.g. fertilisers, pesticides, antibiotics, growth regulators) and genetic modification, and instead employ natural methods to control weeds, pests and disease. But it goes beyond this - it's a type of farming that's holistic at its roots, which takes into account the health of the system as a whole, as well as sustainability and longevity of the land. I like to view it as supporting nature to do its thing, rather than overriding it.
Growing organic, particularly on a larger scale, often requires serious effort - you need to really understand your environment, and everything from its historical problems, soil health and management, the weather and seasons, machinery, crop rotation, sustainability, recycling of waste and more, to work compatibly with it. A focus on long-term, over short-term, gain. A minor example - we get snails in our garden and, instead of chemical pellets, we use crushed egg shells to deter them from our precious plants. It's a little more work, but alas - organic.
How do you become certified organic?
Although anyone can claim to be organic, in order to become certified, which is a trusted regulated term, you go through a strict regulation process to prove you're abiding to a certain set of standards aligned with organic methods. This is beyond us home gardeners, and rather for businesses/companies anywhere along the production chain, from organic growers to processors to suppliers to retailers.
In New Zealand, it can take a few years to gain an organic certification (e.g. depending on whether your dealing with livestock, growing annual or perennial crops, or manufacturing products), and then an annual audit is conducted to renew and maintain certification - we have a few companies who certify, including AsureQuality and BioGro. Certification ensures a company has met the criteria and a consumer can trust them to be organic. They can then add a certification stamp proudly onto their product. Remember, just because someone says they're organic, isn't any guarantee they are - this is where certification sets companies apart.
Is organic produce better for us?
This has been hotly debated for years. From me it's a wholehearted yes - wherever we can it's best to eat organic, for us and the environment.
Focusing on soil health for a moment - soil is the foundation of our food system. Plants need nutrients to grow, which they absorb largely from the soil. When we eat the plant, we get these nutrients - a neat/handy chain of events. However, conventional farming is quite demanding of soil, with plants repeated planted and harvested, depleting the soil of nutrients. This puts the soil under pressure, and is where fertilisers are artificially added, although they will often not contain the full spectrum of nutrients found in the soil. Like humans, a lack of nutrients can make plants more susceptible to disease, and defending themselves against pest - which is where pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are often used.
There have been studies done supporting that organic produce may be richer in nutrients, particularly antioxidants and certain micronutrients (1, 2, 3). However, it's fair to say that studies have also had mixed results, but for me it makes sense that the more healthy and nutrient-rich the soil, the more nutrient-rich the plant.
From an environmental perspective it's well known that agricultural practises affect the health of the soil, with organic methods maintaining more ecological characteristics within soil, and organic farming systems establishing larger floral/faunal biodiversity - all great for the environment and health of plants (4). Another big draw card is the absence of artifical chemicals used to grow the products - the less toxic load in our life, and the surrounding environment, the better, whether through switching the cleaning products in our house, the products we use on our skin or the foods we chose to eat.
But at the end of the day, it's most important to just ensure you're eating vegetables in the first place, rather then fretting over if they're organic or not. I am all for eating organic, but if step one isn't working out, don't stress over step two. I don't eat fully organic - the garden hugely aids in supplying organic produce, but of course not everything. We ultimately just have to do the best we can for the place we're at. Health needs to be feasible for you.
But it's more expensive?
Yes, often it is - it requires serious effort, time and skill to produce organic food, and costs can reflect this. Looking ahead, it will hopefully continue to become cheaper as more research and development occurs, and supply and demand increases. However, budget and financial stress are still very real problems - my advice is if you're interested in incorporating more organic foods into your diet, but are mindful of budget, try these tips:
- Grow them yourself. Begin with some dark leafy greens and fresh salad, and then develop your space if you enjoy the process. Greens are ideal as they have short shelf-lives, and so are handy to pick as needed (they're also so good for us!).
- Shop at farmers markets - also a great way to support local communities and growers.
- Shop selectively - it may not be as necessary to buy organic fruit that has thicker, peel-able skins on fruits, like watermelons or bananas. Check out the approach of the "Dirty Dozen & Clean 15" idea for more on this.