A beginner's guide to organic goods
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Date: 14 October, 2003


'£120m of taxpayers' money is used to pay for chemicals to be removed from drinking water, mainly as a result of the pesticides used in farming.'

By Andy Jackson

According to the Soil Association, three out of every four households in the UK buy organic food. Most of us know which areas of the supermarket contain organic products and produce, but what does the term 'organic' really mean?

For starters, it's an earthly matter. Organic doesn't just mean that the green-bagged apples you buy are free of fertilisers and pesticides. It also means that the soil in the orchards is healthy.

Organic farmers develop a healthy, fertile soil and grow a mixture of crops. The practise severely restricts the use of artificial chemical fertilisers and pesticides and animals are reared without the routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers common in intensive livestock farming.

The term organic is defined by European law: all organic food production and processing is governed by a strict set of rules. The Soil Association, among others, offers a symbol as a guarantee of high organic standards (below).

A product carrying such a symbol indicates that the product complies with minimum government standards, which in this country are set by the UK Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) and meet European and international standards. Each certification body has its own symbol and EU code number.

And the term doesn't just apply to food. Organic wood, clothing, gardening products and even restaurants can all be found.

So why are more people choosing organic?

Organic farmers, as far as possible, avoid using unnecessary chemical sprays. Food additives linked to asthma, osteoporisis, migraines, hyperactivity and heart disease are among those banned under organic standards.

On average, organic food contains higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants. Amongst the additives banned by the Soil Association are hydrogenated fat, aspartame (artificial sweetener) and monosodium glutamate.

Over 400 chemical pesticides are routinely used in conventional farming and residues are often present in non-organic food. The government has recently found high levels of pesticide residues in baby food, spinach, dried fruit, bread, apples, celery, and chips! £120m of taxpayers' money is used to pay for chemicals to be removed from drinking water, mainly as a result of the pesticides used in farming.

Organic farming is friendlier to the environment, so there is a much greater diversity of birds, butterflies and plants on organic farms. The government has said that it is better for wildlife, causes lower pollution from sprays, produces less carbon dioxide - the main global warming gas - and less dangerous wastes.

Organic farms get checked annually and the strict standards also ban the use of GM technology (see our GM Food in links article).


Organic farming requires animals to be kept in more natural, free-range conditions with a more natural diet. There is growing concern about the high use of antibiotics on farm animals and the possible effects on human health so the use of antibiotics is also banned. Animal welfare is taken very seriously under organic standards and is supported by animal rights organisations such as Compassion in World Farming.

More farmers are turning organic. In general, farming is suffering its worst depression since the 1930s and figures show that around 1,500 people leave farming each month.

In comparison, the organic sector continues to grow at a steady rate, with around 40 farmers converting to organic farming each month. Consumer demand is still very strong with sales approaching £1billion a year, organic food continues to be one of the fastest growing sectors of the food market.

Finally, many people say that organic food tastes better.

Is organic the same as fair trade?

No. But the Soil Association and the Fairtrade Foundation have launched a one year pilot project to combine the organic and Fairtrade inspection and certification of British and imported foods (see picture below, courtesy Soil Association).

Under the pilot project, companies selling products from around the world can apply to carry the Fairtrade and Soil Association marks. This means that UK farms as well as those from developing countries will be able to participate in the pilot.

One of the objectives of the trial is to develop a simplified procedure for obtaining the certification required for organic and Fairtrade labels. This will ultimately reduce the costs of inspection and is something that UK and European producers have been asking for some time.

Under Fairtrade standards, the price paid to farmers must cover the sustainable cost of production, which includes a margin for profit and investment. In addition, buyers should commit to long-term relationships that enable growers to plan future production with confidence.

The Soil Association's website has a directory of organic suppliers (registration needed for access) as well as a host of information about organic goods
Visit the Fairtrade Foundation's website to find out about new products and recipes for them
Advice on whether or not you should peel your carrots, and more, from The Food Standards Agency

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