Knowing your labels is an action you can take now as part of Going For Gold’s Buying Better strand. Lucy Gatward from Better Food gives the low-down on organic certification.
I had a fridge magnet once that said ‘Try organic food or, as your grandparents called it, food’.
It’s a nod to the fact that cheap, industrially-produced food is a relatively recent phenomenon that really got going after the Second World War. Cheap food is great! We love it! It’s been by far the main driver in how our diets have changed over the past 70 years. It has become the norm.
The problem is that this cheap food, born out of the industrialisation of farming, has produced other not-so-positive consequences. As far back as 1946 a vanguard of people – scientists, farmers, health professionals – noticed that while yields on ‘conventional’ farms were high, soil was in an increasingly poor state, food quality was decreasing, the well-being of livestock was being compromised and wildlife seemed to be in decline. And so, the Soil Association was born and the term ‘organic’ was crystallised as a way of differentiating ‘live’, healthy soil, full of organic matter and living organisms, from soil that had been treated with chemical herbicides and fertilisers.
Among other things, the standards ensure:
- The avoidance of artificial chemicals (20 are allowed, and only to treat disease, compared to 300+ on ‘conventional’ farms)
- Livestock are fed, housed and bred to specified high standards of animal welfare (medication, including antibiotics, is only allowed to treat illness)
- Detailed written production and sales records are kept and regular on-site inspections occur.
From an environmental point of view, this matters because:
- Wildlife, including pest-controlling and pollinating insects, has a much better chance of thriving on organic farms. This is important because one in every three mouthfuls of food depends on pollinators.
- Organic soil is great at storing carbon and is bursting with micro-organisms, which help prevent flooding and drought. Soils on many conventional farms, routinely stripped of organic matter by years of chemical input, have now been recognised as being at a major disadvantage. It’s a vital piece of the jigsaw when you consider that 95% of our food comes directly or indirectly from soil, and that it can take up to 500 years to form 1cm of top soil.
- Far fewer pesticides are used and no herbicides (weed killers) are allowed in organic farming
Who can use the term ‘organic’?
Only businesses and farms registered to a legally-binding scheme can use the term. There are two types of organic licences. Farmers and growers have producer licences, while people who turn these raw materials into other products (for example flour into bread or pigs into sausages) have a processor licence.
Can you trust organic certification?
Yes, but only if it’s accompanied by an accredited logo like the ones pictured on the left. Being able to display organic certification means a series of stringent rules have been stuck to and audited, so there is no way a non-organic interloper can enter the supply chain.
This why organic products currently cost more (until a future when petrochemicals will get too expensive, and soil erosion and other environmental factors become a cost to businesses). At the time of writing, farm subsidies are handed out according to the size of the farm, so large industrialised farms do really well, while small organic farms get much less. Plus, they have to pay for certification.
Organic certification is a symbol you can trust. It’s important for our health and for the environment. It’s worth it to know you’re supporting a solution to feeding a world of diminishing resources.
Lucy Gatward is Marketing Manager at Better Food, a shop selling organic, local, ethical food – with stores at Wapping Wharf, St. Werburghs and Clifton.