Charlotte Willis explores everything organic to decide if it really is worth paying extra for…
Organic food is as vogue as veganism. No longer confined to a bunch of carrots or punnet of strawberries, the food industry is catering to our every demand for organic products, from coconut waters and pastas to ready meals and energy bites. Here we help you to gain a better understanding of what organic has to offer your health and our environment. Is there more to the movement than a heftier chunk from your food budget?
It seems like more and more of us are jumping on the organic bandwagon. The Soil Association, one of the important organic certifying bodies, reported a marked 4.9% rise in organic sales in the UK over the past year, with contrasting sales of non-organic food falling by almost 1%. This being said, we are now projected to spend a record amount of our food budgets on organically produced products by the end of 2017. We are now, more than ever, becoming aware of independent growers, choosing to shop at farmers markets, from sustainable online suppliers and veg box schemes. The UK population is increasingly sourcing its 5-a-day from a diverse range of markets, shown by an average 10% loss in the supermarket’s share of total organic sales during 2016. But it doesn’t stop there! London-based supermarket chain Planet Organic entices customers with its collection of 100% organic produce, and independent restaurants are catching onto the trend. Staples such as cooking oils, sauces, condiments, drinks and even alcoholic beverages are being replaced by organic products.
What is organic?
To qualify as an organic product, there are a number of standards that farmers and producers have to meet and maintain according to the criteria outlined by an official accreditation body, such as the Soil Association. Such stipulations include:
- Minimisation of pesticide use, with certain chemicals and toxins being banned on all occasions.
- Absolutely no use of artificially produced fertilizers or herbicides.
- Minimising negative impacts of farming on wildlife, while actively promoting diversity and species conservation.
- No Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to be grown or sold as organic.
Organic: for your health?
Why are we choosing these products over conventional ones, and is there scientific evidence behind it? When I polled my local vegan group (The Birmingham Vegans) as to their grocery habits, the most prevalent reason I received for choosing to buy and consume organic products was to do with the perceived positive health implications. People cited a desire to minimise their own personal contamination with toxins, growth factors, pesticides and artificial chemicals by choosing organic food and drink.
Researchers at Stanford University found that there was a significantly reduced pesticide residue found on organic crops (7%) compared to non-organic (38%). There is also a markedly reduced level of heavy metal contaminants in organic produce, by as much as 48%. All of these chemical-based pesticides and pollutants have been shown to attribute to oxidative stress in the body (ageing processes and cell death), with some studies in the USA attributing pesticide contamination to childhood developmental issues. There are certain crops that are most prone to contamination and should therefore be eaten in their organic form where possible. However, it’s important to note that research is contradictory as to the safety of organic vs conventional produce, so make sure to wash all fresh produce well before use to ensure residues are minimised. Even better, use my produce-wash (right) to minimise contamination.
So what about the nutritional values of organic foods? Research by the University of Newcastle has focused on exposing differences between organic foods and conventional counterparts. After reviewing studies and conducting their own research, it was concluded that organic foods repeatedly showed a significantly higher level of antioxidant polyphenolic compounds in comparison to conventionally-grown items. So much so, the research suggests that by switching from conventional to organic produce, the average consumer would be able to increase their fruit and vegetable portions by 1-2 per day. You would also reap specific benefits for better skin health, higher energy and aid the body’s natural repair processes. A higher level of antioxidants in the diet has also been linked to a reduction of chronic diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers. It seems organic produce may be super-powered after all. But that’s not all.
Modern farming practices place a strain on the environment. Poor aggregation, soil erosion, artificially fertilizing soils and not allowing enough time between crop growth cycles results in poor crop yields, over-reliance on chemicals and man-made soil enriching agents. These factors result in a vicious cycle of both environmental and crop decline, costing farmers more to upkeep their land to meet the growing demands of supermarkets and retailers. Shockingly, the Soil Association predicts that a staggering 31,000 tonnes of artificial chemicals are used on crops in the UK each year. As a result, there is an increased level of food waste, with the ecosystem becoming increasingly unsustainable. Chemical run-off also pollutes local water supplies, with many mass-scale farming areas becoming stripped of any natural wildlife.
Organic for the planet?
Organic crop growth promotes the use of sustainable crop cycling, which enables the soil to recover and become naturally enriched by the local wildlife. Minimal use of chemicals and the total ban of artificial fertilizers means the ecosystem doesn’t become as toxic. One of the most significant cases of chemical over-use and species decline can be seen in pollinating bees, 25 species of which are threatened drastically. We have also seen a decline in 75% of butterfly populations due to agricultural encroachment on natural habitats.
Organic farming combats this by encouraging farmers to maintain areas of farmland for local wildlife, including grassland, pools and ponds. Organic farmers also maintain hedgerows from March to August to allow for the UK’s breeding season of insects and wildlife.
Organic climate change
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has suggested that by utilising organic growth techniques, the levels of nitrous oxide and methane from soil emissions can be greatly reduced and that emissions are greater in conventional crop farming than those recorded on organic farms. They explain: “Many field trials worldwide show that organic fertilization compared to mineral fertilization is increasing soil organic carbon and thus sequestering large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere to the soil. Lower greenhouse gas emissions for crop production and enhanced carbon sequestration, coupled with additional benefits of biodiversity and other environmental services, makes organic agriculture a farming method with many advantages and considerable potential for mitigating and adopting to climate change.” It’s not surprising given the enormous amount of resources required by conventional farming, such as artificial heat, light and petroleum-based fertilizers, all of which are actively minimised in organic methods.
However, it should be noted that the importation of organic produce from foreign countries, also known as the produce’s air mileage, is a crucial negative factor that can offset these environmental benefits. So when choosing organic foods, try and pick ones from local or UK grown sources. Look for the Red Tractor, which denotes UK grown produce.
How to be organic
So, by choosing organic foods, you’ll not only be consuming extra fruit and veg on a daily basis, but you’ll also help to combat climate change and aid sustainability. So what’s stopping us?
For many, the answer may be the cost. It is true that organic produce is on average 47% more expensive (according to consumerreports.org). Don’t drop those organic apples just yet! Shop around and you can get incredible deals.
Bulk-buy your staple nuts, seeds and dried fruits online. This is by far the cheapest way to source these items. The initial dent pays off when you’re on month 2 of your 2kg bag of walnuts!
Subscribe to an organic veg box scheme. Not only will you gain a variety of fruits and vegetables that are organic and locally grown, but you’ll pay the same amount each week with the ability to pause deliveries as and when required – perfect for budgeting!
The Dirty List
Foods that You Should Eat Organic Only
The following fruits and vegetables have been consistently tested, and have been found to contain the highest levels of pesticide contamination.
I would therefore recommend that you minimise the intake of the following from conventional sources whenever possible – particularly if consumed on a daily basis. (Source: The Environmental Working Group)
- Strawberries and berries (some samples showed up to 15 different pesticide residues)
- Peppers (sweet bell peppers)
- Leafy green veg
DIY Vegetable Pesticide Wash
If organic isn’t an option, or you’d simply like to minimise the amount of contamination on your foods, this easy DIY fruit and vegetable wash can help reduce the amount of harmful chemicals present on your foods. Simply combine the following ingredients together and store in a glass bottle. Submerge or spray on your produce, leave for 5-10 minutes, then rinse with water:
- 1 part white or apple cider vinegar (organic of course!)
- 3 parts filtered water
- 1 tbsp lemon juice per 500ml (18fl oz)
About the author
Charlotte is a student researcher of nutrition and human disease. As well as working as a staff writer for Vegan Food & Living, Charlotte also writes for The Vegan Society and online publications.