For many years now I’ve been wondering ‘should I switch to buying organic food’? Is it really necessary in Australia? Do I have to go completely organic when I grocery shop? How does a full non-organic grocery shop compare? Which items should I opt for if I can’t do the whole shop organically? Why aren’t more farmers moving to producing organic food? These were some of the questions I sought answers to when I recently interviewed Andrew Monk, Chairman of Australian Organics (AO). This post is a summary of everything I’ve found, along with my current thoughts on the whether I should switch to buying organic food in Australia.
What is the definition of organic in Australia?
Organic food is produced through a natural, modern form of farming that avoids the use of artificial fertilisers and use of antibiotics in plants and animals.
How can I be sure something is organic?
Global organic standards
People often say ‘oh organic! That’s wishy-washy stuff isn’t it?’ In actual fact globally, there is a clear definition of what organic means. The Codex Alimentarius, which is the World Trade Organisation’s Food Bible for how you trade in different things, has had an organic specified standard for two decades now.
Domestic & Australian organic standards
The EU and the US have codes which state the organic standard. But what about Australia? Australia has a national standard for our exports, which legally must be complied with. They require that the organic seller’s produce complies not only with export standards, but additionally that they are certified by a third party certifier. Currently, there are five Australian authorised certifying bodies who independently check that their products meet the national standards. It seems to be quite a common misconception that anything can be called organic these days, but it’s clear that particularly with exports and big supermarkets, this isn’t the case. However, if you’re shopping at a smaller supermarket and a product claims to be organic, but doesn’t have one of the recognisable ‘Certified Organic’ logos then it is unlikely that the product meets national standards. This means that without a certification label you have less protection as a consumer.
To clarify, when I use organic in this post I am referring to certified organic.
What about products that are partially certified organic, how does that work?
Andrew Monk, Chairman of Australian Organics (AO) explained that there are two different parts to this answer.
- Internationally there is a rule that gives 5% grace for some products that require ingredients that are unable to be sourced organically.
- There is a second level, which says if the organic ingredients contribute to less than 70% of the total ingredients then the manufacturer cannot make any organic claims on the label.
If the organic content of a mixed food contributes 70-95% of the overall ingredients manufacturers can make a claim that the product contains ingredients that are organic. For example, a mixed snack pack with 80% organic ingredients may claim ‘made with organic sultanas and nuts’, but is not able to claim ‘organic snack pack’. The AO Organic Bud label is not found on these products.
IMPORTANT: There are still some companies who try to fudge these claims, so make sure you read the ingredients labels! Companies who claim illegitimately to be organic can be fined by the ACCC.
Why aren’t more farmers moving towards producing organic food?
Organic farming is a different process than non-organic farming. The entire chain of events has to be certified organic. For example, if you are making organic (dairy) milk, the supply of the seed, to grow the plant, to make the hay, to feed the cow, must all be certified organic.
Andrew explained “Farmers’ two biggest difficulties are being misunderstood in the farming process and the constant demand for cheaper prices from consumers.”
The difficulties vary depending on the sector. For a lot of farmers it is weed, pest and fungal management because they can’t use artificial fertiliser to manage and control their crops. They need to take extra precautions and risk management processes to make sure their crops don’t get contaminated.
For example, carrots are a slow growing crop and therefore are more susceptible to weeds. In non-organic farming, all farmers need to do to grow them is run a tractor over the top a couple of times in the season and spray out a herbicide (or a pesticide, or an antifungal chemical). To grow carrots organically the weeding must be done mechanically or with extra labour, which is why the cost for these products is higher.
Lots of farms are in the process of gradually changing over to organic, but it is a costly process and farmers still need to make money. Andrew advised, “Buying organic food in Australia is one way for consumers to connect with farmers and to say ‘hey, you know what?…I want my food this way. Please give it to me. I’m willing to pay a bit of a premium, not a crazy premium, which will hopefully pay for your time and expenses.’”
Is the nutrient content in organic produce better than non-organic produce?
According to Andrew: “The anti-organic answer would be no. However, that is not scientifically valid. Australian Organic does not make statements around this topic for the following reason; nutrient density has so many different variables involved, including the time of harvest, what seeds are used to grow the product in the first place, the climate etc”.
“Similar to the fact that we took 50 years to prove that smoking was bad for us, we are at least 50 years away from proving the effect of nutrition on our bodies. A clear answer [to the nutritional impact] is difficult due to the huge extent of variables.”
Andrew encourages us to use common sense and to consider, “What is organic about? It encourages bioactive soils at the farm level, so you should expect a better, more nutrient dense product.”
Does the science say the chemicals left on non-organic vegetables after washing them is enough to cause damage to our bodies?
Australian Organic avoids making claims about non-organic produced products. “It’s about what we don’t know that we should be concerned,” Andrew said. “There is so much unknown about the effects of the chemicals used in production and how they impact our bodies. Our health authorities do not test for the cocktail effect [the effect from the combination of multiple chemicals used in production], they test only individual chemicals. So, there is no way of knowing the effect.”
In regards to ‘just washing the chemicals off’: “There are some systemic products that you cannot wash off fruit and vegetables. These chemicals get into the body and cell structures of the produce itself. For example, the pesticides used in the production of bananas. The point of an effective fungicide is that it is difficult to get off.”
If someone wants to change to organic, how should they go about it?
Here are some of Andrew’s top tips when it comes to switching to organic:
- Start small. Celebrate the differences you are making. Enjoy the taste of organic products.
- You don’t have to go cold turkey! If you’re only going to buy some produce organically, choose organic leafy veg and soft-bodied fruit.
- “Don’t have a ‘fear of chemicals’ as a primary driver for going organic. Do it for positive reasons (e.g. you like the taste, to support the farmers wellbeing and the environment)”.
To summarise, organic food is about what you are NOT putting in your body, as much as what you ARE. By eating organic food you are protecting your body against exposure to a wide range of modern chemicals. You are also caring for the environment, supporting the living environment of farmers, their families and workers. The latter point regarding a safe working environment for farmers is what makes me want to buy organic the most, as they are dealing with the chemicals day in, day out!
What about you? What stood out to you? Was anything a surprise? Let me know in the comments!