Organic food has fallen in popularity in the UK recently(1), but has become more popular in the rest of the world including the US, China and Brazil. The reason for the reduction in the UK, is lack of demand in the larger supermarkets where sales fell by as much as 10% in 2011.
What is organic food?
Organic food is produced in a way that respects the health of the soil, the animals and plants that are raised on it and the people that eat it. As such it avoids the use of artificial pesticides, fertilizers, animal drugs and food additives that may harm health.
There are a number of other principles that the organic movement follow including: respecting the ecology of areas used for organic farming; trying to be fair to all involved and using the precautionary principle when adopting new technologies such as genetic modification.
Is organic food more healthy?
There are a number of reasons why organic food could be more healthy.
Pesticides are used a lot in conventional farming, with at least 450 different types in use. The vast majority of organic farming uses no pesticides, and where they are used they are limited to a handful of different types such as sulphur and soft soap, which are considered to be less harmful to both health and the environment.
Pesticides have been associated with a number of diseases. This is no great surprise given the nature of many pesticides whose central purpose is to kill off various creatures. Various cancers(2), reduced fertility(3) and brain damage(4) can all result from chronic low level exposure.
Another major reason why organic food may be better is that some bacterial strains can develop antibiotic resistance within domestic animals that are not organically reared. The more often antibiotics are used, the more chance there is that some bacteria will evolve that are resistant to the antibiotic being used. These bacteria then go on to produce untreatable disease in humans.
In the US many animals are routinely treated with hormones to promote growth and increase fertility(5). These hormones could lead to an increased risk of various cancers, diminished fertility and other hormone related illness(6). In the EU and Australia and Canada the use of hormones and the import of meat containing these hormones is banned.
GM - Genetically modified
I'm not convinced that GM foods are that bad for health, but there is evidence that they do not do wonders for the environment. They often encourage greater use of pesticides and give greater control to large corporations over our food supply.
Is organic always right?
Although organic food may sound as if it is better for your health, there are a number of reasons why it may not be best to buy it.
Much of the organic food we can buy is shipped in over great distances. The cost to the environment can be high including the inevitable boost to climate change and damage to the worlds biodiversity. As with all long distance shipment there is a potential loss of nutritional quality, negating the health benefits there may have been.
A lot of organic food is found in packages as this is one way to ensure that the organic food is traceable and is not mixed up with non-organic food. Unfortunately this extra packaging uses up the earth's supplies of oil and gas which are used to produce the neccessary plastics. Another boost for climate change also results from this.
Small local producers
Small businesses often can't afford the time or money involved in gaining organic certification. Many of these businesses are practicing using organic principles. If they are local businesses then by supporting them you are reducing food miles and supporting local food networks. If you are lucky you may still have a greengrocer, fishmonger and butcher on your local high street. In my view retaining these is more important than keeping to organic foods.
There is no doubt that a lot of organic food is not as organic as you are led to believe. This is hardly surprising if you consider the potential profits that can be made by passing off non-organic (cheaply produced) items as organic(7).
Just because something is organic does not make it healthy. As any good nutritionist will tell you, avoiding packaged produce is a great way of ensuring you are buying real food. Packaged organic food will be produced according to organic regulations, and while they do restrict what can be added to organic produce, but they do not ensure it is healthy.
How can I be organic?
Organic food is widely available in supermarkets, but by buying it there you come across many of the downsides of organic food such as increased food miles and packaging.
Organic or local box schemes
Some of these really connect local producers with local consumers, and if run by sensible people they may not even insist on organic certification for some trusted small local producers. They are normally delivered to your door and this reduces overall carbon footprints. If say 50 people received a delivery from your local box scheme van that could be 50 less cars going out to a supermarket up to 10 miles distant.
Growing your own vegetables
If you have the time and the inclination, then renting an allotment or growing food in your own garden is the ultimate way to ensure organic standards. You can also get more of an understanding of your food, from how flavours can vary to how quality can be affected by weather and soil fertility.