Understanding Organic Food
Agriculture and farming have become more industrialised in the previous century because of the growing demand for food in the world. The process of growing vegetables and fruits has become technical, using chemicals, genetics and other methods to improve the quantity, quality, aspect and availability. Unfortunately, research now proves that some of these methods can be quite harmful to our health and our environment.
Organic farming was first developed to change farming practices in the early 20th century in Australia. Over time more federations were created around the world to uphold standards for the food industry, and organic products started to become available around the world. While all these various federations have similar standards, an umbrella organisation called “International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement” (IFOAM) was created in 1972 to uniformise the practice and regulation around organic farming.
What does Organic mean?
For Vegetables and Fruits, organic agriculture is defined as an integrated farming system that strives for sustainability, enhancement of soil fertility and biological diversity while prohibiting synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic fertilisers, genetically modified organisms, and growth hormones. Practically it means that only natural methods are used to improve the quality and productivity of agriculture and farming. Organic farmers use techniques such as compost manure, green manure and bone meal to increase production and to fertilise the soil. Farming methods such as rotation and companion planting are used to keep the soil rich in nutrients. Other methods like mixed cropping or fostering some insects predators are preferred for pest control rather than using chemicals that could be dangerous for our health and the environment.
For animal products, organic farming includes various standards. Firstly, animals are fed only organic food. They also not given any medication or hormones that could potentially be passed and found in the final product for consumption. Organic animals products are also free of any chemicals and preservatives. To use organic labels on their products, farmers must uphold various standards on how the animal should be treated while alive.
Here are what some of the labels on animal products mean:
Used for poultry. It means that the animal won’t live in a cage but doesn’t necessarily mean that it will go outside.
means that the animal is spending a certain amount of time outdoors, without specifying more on the environment or the time spent outside.
For cattle, grass-fed means that the animal will eat only grass and no grains. Studies seem to show that grass-fed meat is better for our health. Meat from animals who are grass-fed is richer in conjugated linoleic acid, which has been proven to boost immunity and protect against cardiovascular diseases. It is also richer in vitamin K2. Some studies even found that it has a better taste!
For meat includes the “free-range” label but not the “grass-fed”. Animals raised organically can also be fed organic grains. The label can also include the time the animal spends outdoors and various other aspects that make sure that it is well treated. The way the animal is treated has a direct effect on the quality of the meat, as we will see later.
Fish are considered “organic fish” if they grow in their natural state (and in that sense can be considered “wild fish”). It also means that the fish has no pesticides and chemicals. Often organic fish comes from organic farms where the water quality can be controlled.
Benefits of organic products
The main benefits of organic products are that they are free of chemicals, pesticides and are not genetically modified. The rapid development of the food industry in the past century has seen the apparition of industrialised agriculture and farming practices. The use of chemicals to grow crops faster, adding preservatives to make products last longer, and even artificially improving the look, and smell to make the product more attractive to consumers has become a regular practice. Animals also receive medications and hormones to keep them free of diseases and increase their production of milk or eggs.
Research shows that all these chemicals can be found in the food we are consuming and can, in the long term, have a negative influence on our health. Organic vegetables will often not look as perfect as their other counterparts but are much healthier, and taste better. Higher nutritional value is another main benefit of organic food.
Because of the way they are grown, organic vegetables, fruits and grains etc. are often richer in nutrients than nonorganic ones. Intensive farming practices are known to deplete the soil of essential minerals. Using fewer chemicals, natural pest control methods and fertilising helps in growing fruits and vegetables with higher nutritional values.
Animals that are fed organic food (which is richer in nutrients) will have meat, milk, and eggs with higher nutritional value. Another benefit of organic farming for animals is that they are raised on open grounds. The animals are in better shape, which decreases the amount of saturated (or bad) fat in them, and increases the quality of their muscle.
Limitations of the organic label
While the IFOAM is trying to keep the same standards around the world for organic food, there are still some differences in farming methods around the world. These differences can appear confusing for consumers as the information on the packaging is different from one country to another. It is useful to check on the IFOAM website for the meaning on specific labels.
Another limitation of organic farming is that in some countries, these standards can be very demanding on small farmers. Many prefer not to label their food “organic”, even if their products are of very good quality. For many, it is too expensive to put in place all the standards required.
Another consequence of having strict standards for organic farming is that it makes the products too expensive for most. Intensive farming practices have given us cheap and affordable food available year-round. While organic products are often packed in small quantities and are costly, especially when they are imported from a distant country.
How to buy organic
As organic products are more expensive, buying “all organic” may not be possible for all budgets. It is useful to know which fruits and vegetables are best to buy organic. Some fruits and vegetables grow easily and don’t necessarily “absorb” chemicals the same way as others. They are called the “clean 15” and include Avocado, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, onions, sweet peas, papaya, asparagus, mango, eggplant, honeydew, cantaloupe, kiwis, cauliflower and broccoli.
The ones who have a high ability to absorb chemicals are called the “dirty dozen”, and it is best to buy them organic. They include strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, grapes, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and bell peppers.
Buying seasonal foods in local markets is also a cheaper alternative. Products purchased in the local markets even if not organic are usually grown in the right conditions. Farmers selling at local markets have a small production capacity. While they don’t always have the resources to be called ”organic”, they also cannot spend a lot of money on chemicals, and often use more natural and cheaper way to help their plants grow.
Buying seasonal produce, in general, is better for our health. Summer fruits and vegetables contain more water which is what our bodies need in that weather. And root and winter vegetables are rich in nutrients and fibres to help us go through the winters. Buying seasonal and local is buying the most suited food for our bodies.
Organic farming has developed over the past years in reaction to an unhealthy over industrialisation of agriculture. Because they are more demanding to grow, organic products are less affordable and often harder to find than nonorganic products, which often makes consumers hesitant when buying them.
Yet they are the safer and a healthier option. People should remember to find a balance between organic and non-organic products when shopping for groceries. After all, good health starts first and foremost with the food you eat!