What does “organic” mean?
The term “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. While the regulations vary from country to country, in general organic crops must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers.
Organic livestock raised for meat, eggs, and dairy products must have access to the outdoors and be given organic feed. They may not be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal by-products.
Organic food must be produced using more environmentally friendly and animal friendly farming methods, resulting in it being better for people, animals and the planet.
What are the Australian organic standards
Organic standards are the rules and regulations that define how an organic product must be made.
Standard (guidelines and rules) did not exist for domestic and imported organic foods before 2009, this led to a misrepresentation of the word ‘organic’. In Australia the use of the label ‘organic’ is heavily regulated by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) when produce is exported, but open to exploitation in the domestic market. It is therefore important to ensure that products are purchased from certified organic growers and producers, which guarantees they have been produced to national quality standards as set out by the organic certifying bodies.
Once a farmer joins a registered organic certification scheme, the designated farm can gain organic certification status after they have been operating according to organic principles for three years.
Two key national standards now govern the production, processing and labelling of organic food in Australia, there are:
- The National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce (exported foods)
- The Australian Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Products (domestic & imported foods)
These standards provide an agreed set of procedures to be followed in organic food production chain from farm to the consumer. This helps to ensure the integrity and traceability of an organic food product from ‘paddock to plate’. The standards include requirements for production, preparation, transportation, marketing and labelling of organic products in Australia.
While it is mandatory for exported organic produce to be certified and meet the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce, the Australian standard (for domestic and imported foods) is not mandated, and certification is voluntary. Its purpose is to assist the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC – the national consumer regulatory authority) to ensure that claims made about organic and biodynamic products are not false or misleading.
‘Organic-certified produce’ means the food was grown, harvested, stored and transported without the use of synthetic chemicals, irradiation or fumigants and the integrity of this status is verified under the scrutiny of a registered certification body.
Some of the criteria that must be met to be accredited as organic includes but is not limited to the following:
- No genetically modified crops and ingredients
- Use of pesticides is severely restricted
- Artificial chemical fertilisers are prohibited
- Farm animal welfare is paramount
Organic farm animals:
- Cannot be given growth hormones
- Must be free range
- Must be fed natural GMO-free food
- Must not be produced from cloned animals
- Must be free from drugs, antibiotics and wormers (at the time of sale)
What is the difference between Organic and Biodynamic?
Biodynamic farming is a type of organic farming pioneered by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, which places strong emphasis on ecological harmony and environmental sustainability. Biodynamic food is grown with certain composts, preparations and natural activating substances. Food sold under the ‘Demeter’ logo or ‘Biodynamic’ logo, have been produced according to the ‘Biodynamic’ method of agriculture.
Organic and biodynamic are very similar in that both are grown without chemicals and GMOs. However, biodynamic goes one step further. It is a holistic practice where all things are considered living interrelated systems – animals, plants and the solar system. Biodynamic practices create healthier plants and heal the earth by replenishing the soil and adding vitality to the plant, soil and/or livestock.
Biodynamic farming methods enliven the soil through human attentiveness and careful observation of nature’s rhythms. The main difference between organic and biodynamic is that biodynamic farming uses different principles that add vitality to the plant, soil and/or livestock, whereas traditional farming typically deteriorates the soil. Biodynamic agriculture uses specifically prepared preparations made from minerals and herbs, these preparations are then used to enhance the compost applied to the fields and intensify the sunlight permeated into the plant.
Biodynamic agriculture also incorporates astrological influences. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of biodynamics, believed that much like the moon affects the tides, so does it affect the growing phases of planting and harvesting. Complex stellar calendars chart the influences of the moon and other planets for gardeners and farmers to follow.
Organically grown food is produced from natural farming systems that do not damage the environment. Organic growers maintain the long-term fertility of soils by fostering the creation of humus (a dark organic substance made up of decayed plant or animal matter, which provides nutrients for plants and increases the ability of soil to retain water) through replenishing organic matter, balancing mineral levels and increasing microbial life.
Organic farmers do not use:
- Synthetic fertilizers
- Synthetic pesticides or herbicides
- Antibiotics or growth hormones in animal production
The principal of organic farming is that a healthy plant grows from healthy soil and is therefore more resistant to disease. In cases where a Farmer does experience pest issues he may use several different techniques which can include, companion planting, predator releases, microbial diseases, biodegradable botanical sprays, resistant varieties, mechanical and pheromone traps, etc.
This complex management system requires more skill and hard work than simply spraying a field with poisons. It also requires a deeply held commitment by farmers to ecological production. One of the clearest distinctions between a Conventional Farmer and a Certified Organic Farmer is in their approach to nature and how they go about keeping crops and animals in good health. Most Conventional Farmers take a preventative approach, while Organic Farmers simply look to work with nature as mother earth intended.
What are the main benefits of buying organic
Beneficial Nutrients & Flavour
Organic foods often have more beneficial nutrients, such as more antioxidants, vitamins and minerals than their conventional equivalent due to the way the food is grown compared to their conventionally-grown counterparts.
Fresh Organic fruit and vegetables contain on average more vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other micronutrients than conventionally farmed produce. Organic food is grown from fertile, healthy soil and allowed to ripen naturally, obtaining the maximum variety of micronutrients. Conventionally farmed food is sprayed with artificial fertilizers that force the plant to grow quickly, even in inferior soil. These micronutrients are much more concentrated in organic fruit and veg due also to the fact that they contain a much lower water content.
Organic produce is also rich in naturally occurring compounds known as phytonutrients. These are found in fresh fruit and vegetables and help to fight disease and promote good health. While all fresh produce contains phytonutrients, organic fresh produce contains more than its conventional equivalent, this is due to all plants producing phytonutrients as part of their natural defence against pests, therefore if a plant is protected from pests by chemicals, there is no need for the plant to make phytonutrients in the same quantities.
Organic meat and milk are noted to be richer in certain nutrients. Results of a 2016 European study show that levels of certain nutrients, including beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, were up to 50 percent higher in organic meat and milk than in conventionally produced products.
Phytonutrients also help to flavour fresh produce in which they occur, so as well as being good for health, high levels of these certain phytonutrients boost the taste factor. Sugar levels are often higher in organic fresh produce which also enhances the flavour, which is most likely since Organic fruit is in most instances allowed to ripen naturally on the tree, giving more time for flavours and sweetness to develop.
Organic produce contains fewer pesticides, as opposed to chemicals such as fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides being widely used in conventional agriculture with residues remaining both on and in the food we eat.
Food is fresher
Organic food is often much fresher because it doesn’t contain preservatives that make it last longer. Organic produce is often (but not always, so take note where it is from) produced on smaller farms near to where it is sold, therefore limiting the transportation process.
Better for the environment
Organic farming practices reduce pollution, conserve water, reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and use less energy, storing higher levels of carbon in the soil. Organic farming methods are less dependent on non-renewable, fossil fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides.
Organic farming promotes wildlife biodiversity rather than destroying it as conventional farming does. Biodiversity plays a vital role in supplying habitat for the birds and insects that an organic farm needs in order to function. Wild flowers on organic farms attract butterflies and useful predators to enhance farming.
Chemicals sprayed on crops eventually penetrate the plants or trickle down into the soil. Polluting the land and draining into the water table, these poisons then flow into streams and rivers polluting the ecosystem. Conventional fertilizers are just as damaging to the ecosystem as pesticides. Nitrate-based fertilizers also seep into the water system, stimulating the growth of algae throwing the whole ecosystem out of balance and poisons waterways.
Farming without pesticides creates a better environment for nearby wildlife as well as people who live close to farms.
Organic farms are required to set aside at least 5% of their farming environment to biodiversity areas where there is no agricultural production.
Organic animals are not giving drugs, antibiotics, growth hormones, or fed animal by-products. Feeding livestock animal by-products increases the risk of mad cow disease (BSE) and the use of antibiotics can create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Organically-raised animals are given more space to move around and access to the outdoors, which help to keep them healthy. The standards around animal welfare mean animals that are reared organically lead healthier, more comfortable lives. All Certified Organic animals must be fed certified organic feeds, cannot be treated with growth promotants or antibiotics during their lifetime and must be able to roam and graze freely performing their natural behaviours. Organic livestock producers must practice ‘best environmental management’, ensuring biodiversity and land and wildlife conservation. Each animal sold must have a verified lifetime of organic management in accordance with the organic standard and carry clear identification. Animal welfare is also paramount. Consideration for the natural behaviours of animals is critical in the planning and management of organic livestock farms. Artificial Antibiotics, Hormones and Pesticides
Organically farmed animals and poultry are treated with respect. They are held as closely to their natural habitat as possible, always ‘free-range’ and always with bedding and protection from the elements. Food animals raised organically grow more slowly than their conventional equivalent and their meat becomes more flavoursome during the lengthy process. Another reason why organic meat tastes better are mainly because Organic Farmers choose traditional heritage breeds that are best noted for their flavour rather than selecting breeds that produce a high yield.
Organic food is GMO-free
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered (GE) foods are plants whose DNA has been altered in ways that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding, most commonly in order to be resistant to pesticides or produce an insecticide. This is not allowed as per the organic standards.
Supports Family Businesses
Most Organic Retailers are also Australian family owned and run with an ethical and sustainable outlook to their organic principal. This both benefits the business and its surrounding communities.
The benefits of locally grown food
Organic food vs. locally-grown food
Unlike organic standards, there is no specific definition for “local food”. It could be grown in your local community, your state, your region, or your country. During large portions of the year it is usually possible to find food grown close to where you live at places such as a farmer’s market, your independent store etc.
Cost of Organic certification
Small local farmers often use organic methods but sometimes cannot afford to become certified organic. Visit a farmer’s market and talk with the farmers to find out what methods they use.
Money stays within the local economy, with additional revenue going directly to the farmer, instead of having outgoings on items such as marketing, transportation and distribution. Local grown produce can in some cases be cheaper than certified organic produce.
Freshness & Flavour
Local food is harvested when ripe and in season, it’s usually therefore fresher and full of flavour.
In the America for example, the average distance a meal travels from the farm to the dinner plate is over 1,500 miles. Produce must be picked while still unripe and then gassed to “ripen” it after transport. However, in some cases the food is highly processed in factories using preservatives, irradiation and other means to keep it stable for transport. This is not a factor when choosing locally grown produce.
Why is organic food often more expensive?
The cost of organic food is generally higher than that of conventional produce as the organic price tag reflects the real cost of growing the food.
Organic food is more labour intensive since the farmers do not use pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or drugs. Organic certification is expensive and organic feed for animals can cost twice as much. Organic farms tend to be smaller than conventional farms, which means fixed costs and overheads must be distributed across smaller produce volumes without government subsidies.
There are also other hidden costs, for example energy. Conventional farming uses more petroleum than any other single industry. In America for example, more energy is now used to produce synthetic fertilizers than to till, cultivate and harvest all crops. Despite a tenfold increase in the use of pesticides between 1947 and 1974, crop losses due to insects has doubled, partly due to some insects having become genetically resistant to certain pesticides.
As Organic producers expand in numbers, perfect techniques, and see market expansion for their products, total costs will likely be less than that for conventional products requiring costly non-renewable inputs. Furthermore, as the number of Farmers decrease due to unrealistic returns and society realises the externalised costs of conventional farming, the increased price of conventional foods is inevitable. Prices for organic foods also include costs of growing, harvesting, transportation and storage, which generally are more expensive for Organic Farmers.
In the case of processed foods, processing and packaging costs are also included. Organically produced foods must meet stricter regulations governing all these steps than conventional foods. The intensive management and labour used in organic production are frequently (though not always) more expensive than the chemicals routinely used on conventional farms. There is mounting evidence that if all the indirect costs of conventional food production were factored into the price of food, organic foods would cost the same, or, more likely, be cheaper than conventional food.
Organic food buying tips
Buy in season – Fruits and vegetables are cheapest and freshest when they are in season. Find out when produce is delivered to your market/store so you’re buying the freshest food possible.
Shop around – Compare the price of organic items at the grocery store, the farmers’ market and other venues (even the freezer aisle).
Remember organic doesn’t always equal healthy –Making junk food sound healthy is a common marketing ploy in the food industry but organic baked goods, desserts, and snacks are usually still very high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories. It pays to read food labels carefully.
Other ways to keep the cost of organic food within your budget:
- Shop at farmers’ markets. Many cities, as well as small towns, host a weekly farmers’ market, where local farmers sell their produce at an open-air street market, often at a discount to grocery stores.
- Join a food co-op. A natural foods co-op, or cooperative grocery store typically offers lower prices to members, who pay an annual fee to belong
- Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, in which individuals and families join up to purchase “shares” of produce in bulk, directly from a local farm. Local and organic!
What are GMOs
The ongoing debate about the effects of GMOs on health and the environment is a controversial one. In most cases, GMOs are engineered to make food crops resistant to herbicides and/or to produce an insecticide. For example, much of the sweet corn consumed in America is genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup and to produce its own insecticide, Bt Toxin.
GMOs are also commonly found in American crops such as soybeans, alfalfa, squash, zucchini, papaya, and canola, and are present in many breakfast cereals and much of the processed food that we eat. If the ingredients on a package include corn syrup or soy lecithin, chances are it contains GMOs.
Genetically Modified Organisms also known as GE – Genetic Engineering
Genetic modified food is a radical technology that manipulates genes and DNA – the blue print of living things. Unlike traditional breeding processes, GM takes genes from one life form and crosses them with those of another. Genes from bacteria, viruses, plants and animals, have been inserted into soybeans, canola, corn and cotton to grow experimental crops. These crops are processed into foods and sold all over the world. They are bought by us and served up on our plates. Right now, millions of Australians are eating GMO’s, without even realizing it!
GMO’s are unnatural, unnecessary and unwanted. Contrary to industry claims, genetic engineering is both unpredictable and risky. GMO’s pose threats to our health, to the health of our children, the environment and the rights of Farmers.
Thankfully you can feel confident that GMO’s are completely banned in Organic Farming. The only concern being that with the extent of GMO crops in even Australia now that cross-pollination could adversely affect organic food.
GMOs and pesticides
The use of toxic herbicides like Roundup (glyphosate) has increased 15 times since GMOs were introduced. While the World Health Organization announced that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans” there is still some controversy over the level of health risks posed using pesticides.
Are GMOs safe?
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the biotech companies that engineer GMOs insist they are safe, many food safety advocates point out that no long-term studies have ever been conducted to confirm the safety of GMO use, while some animal studies have indicated that consuming GMOs may cause internal organ damage, slowed brain growth, and thickening of the digestive tract.
GMOs have been linked to increased food allergens and gastro-intestinal problems in humans. While many people think that altering the DNA of a plant or animal can increase the risk of cancer, the research has so far proven inconclusive.
The use of pesticides
Does organic mean pesticide-free?
One of the primary benefits of eating organic is lower levels of pesticides. However, despite popular belief, organic farms do use pesticides. The difference is that they only use naturally-derived pesticides, rather than the synthetic pesticides used on conventional commercial farms. Natural pesticides are believed to be less toxic, however, some have been found to have health risks. That said, your exposure to harmful pesticides will still be lower when eating organic.
What are the possible risks of pesticides?
Most of us have an accumulated build-up of pesticide exposure in our bodies due to numerous years of exposure. This chemical “body burden” as it is medically known could lead to health issues such as headaches, birth defects, and added strain on weakened immune systems.
Some studies have indicated that the use of pesticides even at low doses may increase the risk of certain cancers, such as leukaemia, lymphoma, brain tumours, breast cancer and prostate cancer.
Children and foetuses are most vulnerable to pesticide exposure because their immune systems, bodies, and brains are still developing. Exposure at an early age may cause developmental delays, behavioural disorders, autism, immune system harm, and motor dysfunction.
Pregnant women are more vulnerable due to the added stress pesticides put on their already taxed organs. Plus, pesticides can be passed from mother to child in the womb, as well as through breast milk.
The widespread use of pesticides has also led to the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs” which can only be killed with extremely toxic poisons like 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (a major ingredient in Agent Orange).
Does washing and peeling produce get rid of pesticides?
Rinsing reduces but does not eliminate pesticides. Peeling sometimes helps, but valuable nutrients are often lost with the removal of the skin. The best approach is to, eat a varied diet, wash and scrub all produce thoroughly, buy organic when possible.
Know your produce pesticide levels
Some types of conventionally-grown produce are much higher in pesticides than others, and therefore should be avoided. Others are low enough that buying non-organic is relatively safe. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization that analyses the results of government pesticide testing in America, provides an annually-updated list that can help guide your choices.
The EWG lists for 2017 can be accessed from the links below:
How to identify food certified as organic
National Accredited Certifying Organisations
In Australia, organic certification is performed by several organisations that are accredited by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. under the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce.
There are seven (7) nationally accredited certifying organisations currently classified as organic certifiers, these are:
- AUS-QUAL Limited (AUSQUAL)
- Australian Certified Organic (ACO)
- Bio-Dynamic Research Institute (BDRI)
- National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia Certified Organic (NASAA Certified Organic)
- Organic Food Chain (OFC)
- Safe Food Production Queensland (SFQ)
- Tasmanian Organic-Dynamic Producers (TOP)
What is the difference between these certifying bodies?
All certifying organisations belonging to these logos must ensure that their members comply with the national standard. Each certifying organisation has variations of this standard; however, these are generally extra requirements as the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce is a minimum standard. The Department of Agriculture will not accredit an organisation that allows a system that is less stringent that the minimum standard.
Two of these bodies, NASAA & ACO also have their own additional requirements, which includes conditions for international organic standards and allowing you to export your produce internationally. Each organic certification body must comply with the national standard, on top of this the certifying body may have additional requirements for their members to comply with.
There are however two certification bodies that work domestically and are not controlled by the Department of Agriculture. These are the Organic Growers of Australia who are accredited by the International Organic Accreditation Service (please note that the OGA will cease as an accrediting body as of 30th June 2018) and SAI Global which is accredited by the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand (JASANZ).
The only other main differences between the organisations relate to location and pricing for certification and subsequent ongoing auditing and assessment.