Organic food, in the consumer context, is food which has been produced to standards designed to keep the production more 'natural'. Less chemicals are involved; most pesticides are banned, and the rest are heavily regulated and for occasional use only. Also forbidden is the routine dosing of animals with antibiotics and hormones. Animals have to be kept in certain environments - chickens, for example, have to be free to scratch about and have access to sunlight, among other things.
There are various bodies in the UK who certify food and producers as organic. The Soil Association is one of the main ones. As well as certifying food, they run campaigns to educate the public about organic food, they assist farmers during the transition from conventional to organic farming, and they carry out scientific research into organic farming.
Why Organic Food?
There has been considerable interest in organic food in the UK recently, and it is a market sector that supermarkets and food producers are rushing to take advantage of. Consumer interest is largely due to the following four factors:
The last few years have seen the UK food and farming industries racked with food scares. Through salmonella in eggs, BSE and E-Coli and (at the time of writing) the present Foot and Mouth outbreak, consumers have realised that we really can't be sure what we're eating. Understandably, people want this to change, and organic food with its strict production guidelines looks like a safer option. People also feel it is more 'natural' than conventional farming.
Scientists are currently divided on whether organic food has any actual health benefits or nutritional advantage over conventionally grown products. The Soil Association has published some information which shows that cases of BSE within organic cattle herds are limited to individuals who were brought in from non-organic farms, and that an all-grass (or grass and straw) diet limits the amount of E-Coli produced in cow's stomachs.
At present, organic food is largely unprocessed, since any food processing also has to be certified organic. This means that a diet which involves a lot of organic food involves little processed food, with the accompanying benefit of not having all the hidden fats, salt and sugar that can go in during the processing.
There is also serious concern among the public about genetically modified food. Food certified as organic is not allowed to contain genetically modified ingredients, and so concerned consumers may buy organic food to be sure of avoiding anything genetically modified.
Both the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth believe that organic agriculture is easier on the environment. The lack of pesticides and chemical fertilisers means that farmers must use farming practices such as crop rotation and mixed planting to control pests and keep the land fertile. They would normally also add organic material back into the soil via compost. Soil quality remains high and there is little risk of chemical run-offs contaminating water supplies. Organic farms usually have a higher biodiversity, both among the crops grown and the wildlife supported.
The way in which organic food is distributed also makes a contribution. Organic box delivery schemes are popular, where the produce is delivered to your door step. These schemes can reduce the packaging required and the 'food miles' that the food travels, since delivery is usually local. Small, local retailers and farm shops usually give the same benefits, but supermarkets do not. This is due mostly to the fact that demand in the UK outstrips supply and much organic food is imported. Also, we have developed a taste for exotic foods and year round supplies, neither of which are compatible with the English climate.
Consumers of organic food believe that it tastes better. Different varieties, small scale production and the lack of mass production may have an effect, but this is still disputed. However, organic farming may preserve more varieties of produce and allow speciality local production to thrive, allowing more choice.
As previously discussed, organic food production in the UK has strict rules on the treatment of farm animals and the environments in which they are kept. For this reason, some people buy organic meat on animal welfare grounds.
Whatever their reason for buying organic, consumers who do so know that it is more expensive. But the change to organic can be accompanied by other lifestyle changes (such as eating less meat and less processed food) which can offset this extra cost to a certain extent.
Many people believe that when everything has been taken into account (environmental clean-up costs, the cost of state support for unemployed people who could be employed working on more labour-intensive organic farms, etc) organic food can be shown to be better value. Whereas you pay less for the food itself, the hidden costs inherent in conventional production mean we all end up paying more for it in the end.