Not even supermarket shopping is simple anymore, with every aisle screaming out to our consciences. From fat-free to low-carb, free-range and organic, it seems that food companies are utilising every label to try and get us to purchase their products. But do they have our best interests at heart? In the case of organic produce, the answer is often yes, and here’s why.

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The term ‘organic’ refers to agricultural products grown and processed without synthetic fertilisers, pesticides or hormones. In Australia, producers must meet specific standards in order to obtain the label of certified organic. The products that do come with this guarantee bring a range of benefits for the environment, animal welfare and your health.

 

Environmental benefits

Land

Organic farming practices utilise a range of soil management methods, including crop rotations and organic fertilisers. These techniques encourage the soil to retain nutrients and water, further reducing the need for chemical fertilisers.

Additionally, organic farming practices reduce the risk of erosion by avoiding practices such as tilling, which ploughs and cultivates the soil by tearing, turning and circulating it.

“Organic growers do not use long-lived synthetic chemicals and concentrate on soil regeneration, which keeps air and water clean,” says Tim Marshall, founder of TM Organics and deputy chair of the Organic Federation of Australia.

“Organic growers are inspected and supervised to ensure that their farming systems are not causing off-farm problems.”

Water

With traditional farming practices, the use of synthetic chemical fertilisers and pesticides can often lead to serious groundwater pollution.

Groundwater pollution occurs when waste products penetrate the ground and alter the chemical and biological structure of the water – subsequently reducing the quality of the water for humans, plants and animals. Organic farming practices are strongly encouraged in these areas.

Organic farming also reduces water consumption, as the soil from organic crops has a much better absorption rate, reducing water wastage.

Air

Organic farming practices reduce air pollution in a number of ways. By not using chemical fertilisers and pesticides, they are rejecting the significant amount of greenhouse gases used to produce them. Also, by opting to use local and natural feed and fertilisers, organic farmers reduce the emissions associated with the long-distance transport of these resources.

Similarly, organic produce is often sold locally, which further reduces the farmer’s eco-footprint.

 

Health benefits

No antibiotics

Traditional farming practices use a range of hormones and antibiotics to boost the growth and resistance to disease of their animals. But this can have a range of side effects on humans, and the use of antibiotics in food has been linked to treatment-resistant strains of bacteria in humans.

Organic livestock must be antibiotic-free, and are protected from disease and parasites by a range of methods, including sanitary conditions, a balanced diet and rotational grazing.

No pesticides

“Organic food has better nutrition in terms of nutrients,

antioxidants, health-promoting enzymes and other factors, and of course it does not leave pesticide residues in food,” Marshall says.

In order to be certified organic, foods must not have any contact with chemical pesticides and treatments.

Human consumption of pesticides in food has been associated with birth defects, nerve damage and some cancers. Washing alone will not completely remove pesticides from your food – choosing organic is the only safe way to ensure your foods are chemical-free.

Better taste

The quality of organic food far surpasses that of its traditionally farmed counterpart. There’s no denying the difference between a regular, cage-farmed egg and an organic, free-range egg. Cage eggs are often watery and dull, while organic eggs will have a rich, bright orange yolk in comparison, leading to a far superior omelette!

Organic foods are tastier and more nutritious than other foods due to their lack of chemical exposure and natural living conditions.

“Organic growers are also likely to use older and more nutritious plant varieties, and they take exceptional care of produce after harvest,” Marshall says.

 

Animal welfare benefits

Better living conditions

In Australia, organic farming prohibits cruel living conditions for animals. Organic livestock must have access to outdoor areas, and their living conditions must accommodate the natural environment and behaviour of the animals.

Additionally, the slaughtering methods of animals must be humane and quick to cause the least amount of pain and suffering possible.

“Organic growers are expected to provide shelter for stock and generally care for them well. For instance, organic animals may not spend more than 10 hours in a transport vehicle on the way to market without being offloaded, watered and fed on organic pasture or feedstuff,” Marshall says.

“The best guarantee that you are eating genuine free-range eggs or other animal produce is to buy certified organic.”

Hormone-free

Factory-farmed animals are usually pumped full of hormones to stimulate growth and allow the animals to reach sexual maturity early so they can be bred.

This can have detrimental effects on the animals, and may cause weakened joints as the animal grows before its bones have had time to adapt, leading to a life of pain and suffering. Organic farming prohibits the use of any artificial growth stimulants or hormones.

Natural food sources

Organic livestock are provided with organic feed that replicates their natural meat-free, grass-based diet, rather than highly processed feed. This ultimately promotes healthier livestock.

Organically fed livestock also reduces the risk of conditions such as mad cow disease, which occurs when animals consume meat and bone meal from infected animals.

 

Defining your food labels

There is a broad range of labels for food products that claim to be free-range and natural, but they don’t necessarily mean your food is 100 per cent certified organic.

In Australia, some farmers have used the organic labels without qualification, misguiding consumers into purchasing their products.

But the new Australian Standard for organic and biodynamic products aims to control the domestic market and prevent farmers from labeling their products as organic without qualification.

“This is the first time we have had a domestic standard capable of being acknowledged by the courts. Until now, consumer legislation has dealt with the worst cases of fraud, but has been unable to handle cases where the offender used a private or idiosyncratic definition of organic,” Marshall says.

The new standard will now ensure our produce is 100 per cent certified organic, but there is still a range of confusing food labels on the market. Let’s look at what some labels really mean.

Organic: Organic farms provide animals with free-range living conditions that replicate their natural behaviour and feed. Feed is also organically grown, and the use of any drugs, hormones, antibiotics and pesticides is strictly prohibited.

Free-range: Free-range farms provide spacious living conditions for animals and allow them to roam freely without cages or cramped living spaces. However, free-range stocks do not have to meet the same stringent criteria as organic.

Natural: This label usually means the food is minimally processed without artificial flavours, colours or preservatives.

Grass-fed: This is used in relation to beef products, and means the cattle were fed on a diet of grass or hay. It usually indicates the cattle will be healthier and happier because grass is their natural diet.

Fair-trade: This is not related to organic standards and means the product has been produced in a way that offers producers better trading conditions and promotes sustainability.

 

If you’re not sure where to buy organic produce in your local area, visit www.organicfooddirectory.com.au for a detailed list of where to buy organic food near you.