Farming Thinking

What is organic food? The real difference between organic and non-organic produce.

15th July 2020

Picture of organic vegetables.

Contents:

  1. What does organic food mean? 

  2. How is organic food different?

  3. What does organic mean for animal products?

  4. Who manages organic farming regulations?

  5. What are the advantages of organic farming?

  6. What are the disadvantages of organic farming?

  7. Is organic food better?

What does organic food mean?

For many people, organic means food that is natural and healthy, and made in an environmentally and socially responsible farming system. But the answer to this common question becomes more tricky to answer when you look at the regulations behind what makes organic farming ‘organic’, and especially when you begin to compare organic produce to other labels like free-range and pasture-raised. Which may leave us wondering: what is the difference, and how can we tell?

Picture of freshly picked organic vegetables on a UK farm.

Freshly picked organic rainbow chard from Purton House Organics in Wiltshire.

From the farm to your fridge, organic food is defined by a spectrum of strict standards which removes chemical traces (pesticides, food additives, man-made fertilisers) and genetic alterations (growth enhancers, GMOs) from the gastronomic equation. It’s an agricultural commitment that differs widely from conventional and industrial farming techniques, as it aims to produce food in the most natural way. And because of its high standards, it’s a label that is costly and hard to attain for many small farmers (all the more reason why we should support it!).

With that being said, let’s have a look at where these regulations come from, what they mean for animal products, and what the pros and cons of organic food are.

How is organic food different? 

Organic food involves farming systems devoid of man-made fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators or hormones, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and livestock feed additives. They instead make good use of natural solutions that stem from plants and animals to make sure produce grows healthy and undisturbed.

Picture of an organic farmer harvesting his crops.

Organic farmers are only permitted to use a small number of pesticides which derive from natural ingredients.

Fertilisers

Organic farmers use natural fertilisers that derive from plant and animal waste, with a strong focus on preserving the organic matter and microbial life in the soil. Farmers can accomplish this by taking matters into their own hands and recycling the biomass of their very own farm (composting), or by using plants like legumes as cover crops for the soil, which may supply over 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre. But they can also purchase fertilisers that follow organic standards and are certified by the Soil Association.

These options are far better for the soil and the environment than artificial fertilisers that are synthesised from petrol or natural gas rather than organic material. Conventional farms use these due to short-term benefits like faster yields, but in the long-run, they’re extremely harmful to the soil’s health. And because these are soluble, they can be washed away by rainwater into lakes and oceans, polluting the water with excess nutrients that cause the overgrowth of plants and, consequently, the death of fish and other aquatic life.

Pesticides

According to the Soil Association, organic farmers are permitted to use 20 pesticides, all of which derived from natural ingredients like clove oil or citrus and used only under restricted circumstances, whereas almost 300 artificial pesticides can be routinely used in non-organic farming. Most of these chemical pesticides end up sticking to the non-organic fruits and veggies we find at the supermarket, with up to 47% of British food containing traces of more than one pesticide.

Organic farming promotes quality over quantity, encouraging farmers to produce food free from man-made pesticides.

Growth Enhancers

Organic food bans the use of synthetic plant growth regulators, which are used to influence the speed and size of crops and growth hormones that are used to speed up the growth of farm animals. While it’s a widely controversial area which needs vigorous research, some studies suggest that the use of growth hormones can spark up harmful conditions, which for cows can mean birth disorders or hoof problems. Other growth hormones have been outright banned by the EU for potential carcinogenic effects. So that’s why plant growth regulators and growth hormones are not permissible in organic produce – the highest food safety standards must be assured.

GMOs

The use of GMOs in organic food is strictly prohibited as well. GMO labelled produce implies that some sort of genetic modification has been pursued, where genes from one plant have been incorporated into another. Oftentimes, this is to create crops that are resistant to certain herbicides. Other times, GMO is done to create fruit that is virus-resistant. But while the GM industry believes modified crops will revolutionise farming by creating super-resistant crops, the biotechnology behind it is regarded as flawed and potentially dangerous by organic farmers, and with good reason. In a study by the Soil Association, not only were traces of GM crop material found in milk, eggs, and meat from GM-fed animals, but it was also established that these genetic alterations can be too unnatural, and create biochemical compounds that could be allergenic or toxic (which explains why GMOs have been associated with allergic reactions).

Additives

Organic food regulations set out by the EU, DEFRA, and the Soil Association specify that the additives used for organic produce must be attained by natural means from material with vegetable or animal origin. And the guideline’s stricter than imaginable since a natural additive can only be so if at least 95% of its composition derives from food, while the remaining 5% must still comply with organic restrictions.

Overall, there’s a handful of chemical and artificial implications that organic agriculture avoids.

What does organic mean for animal products? 

When it comes to organic animal products, the key distinguishers are animal welfare and antibiotic usage. Animals are not stressed or overworked, they get to live long, healthy lives, and are given the space and freedom to explore their surroundings by being completely free-range.

Picture of an organic dairy farm, moving the herd into a different field.

Horton House Farm has an organic dairy herd that lives on a diet of organic pasture and produces antibiotic free milk.

Dairy

Organic dairy herds live outside for at least 200 days a year, compared to non-organic systems that keep herds indoors for the vast majority of the year, if not all year round (also known as zero-grazing, which comprises up to 20% of UK’s dairy cows). These herds are never pushed too hard or overworked, and in some cases are milked only once a day, prolonging their life from 3 years in non-organic farms up to 20. To put this into context, an intensively milked cow can be expected to give an average of 11,000 litres of milk per year, whereas Berkeley Farm, for example, milks an average of 6,000 litres from their cows. This does mean that the average yields in organic milk production are around 20% less than in intensive production, but it also guarantees that the cows get proper rest, reducing the risk of any diseases or infections like mastitis (the bacterial infection of the cow’s udder). 

Organic dairy herds also have an excellent diet. Milking cows sourced from places like Berkley Farm or Ivy House Farm Dairy can be seen eating a fully natural diet either from the pasture’s soil, which could be mixed ley (a system where the fields are used for pasture and the soil is filled with grasses or other plants for the animals to graze on, increasing the fertility of the soil), or a natural feed of wheat, seeds, oats and vetch when indoors during winter.

But one of the most shocking components of the conventional dairy industry is that the use of antibiotics remains more than twice as high in animals as humans. That’s why certification bodies like the Soil Association ban its routine use, encouraging healthy animals and believing it should only be administered when cows are truly sick.

Meat

Much like organic dairy herds, there’s lots of time spent outside, averaging around 200 days for cows instead of zero-grazing found in conventional systems. They’re fed a grass-rich, GM-free diet that is 60% grass-based as a minimum, rotating between various types of clovers, peas and vetches throughout the seasons. Chickens under an organic farm get to see the light of day for much longer as well: around 81 days instead of 35. These hens can be seen roaming around the luscious pastures, such as the one of Wood Green Farm in the Devon countryside, foraging for insects and grubs, and are also fed a supplementary diet of GM-free organic produce, like corn.

Consequentially, studies have shown the nutritional value of organic meat to be far superior to that of industrial livestock, with higher omega-3 fatty acids, lower cholesterol, low amounts of bad saturated fats, and higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), known for its cancer-fighting properties. A pasture-fed diet also offers more antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, than livestock that’s been grain-fed.

Picture of organic and free range chickens being fed.

Free range and organic egg laying hens at Haye Farm in Devon.

Eggs

On an organic farm, each hen is completely free-range and is allowed a minimum of 10 square metres of outside space, with better access to the outdoors and the ability to behave naturally. Under the Soil Association organic standards, maximum flock sizes for hens are just 2,000, whereas intensively-reared free-range hens are commonly around 30,000. There is a wide range of standards in between these two figures: the RSPCA assured standard is set at a maximum of 16,000 hens, and the EU organic standard is 3,000 hens. But what’s important to note is that places like New MacDonalds Farm, who split their pasture-raised chickens in flocks of 500, guarantee a healthy, happy home, feeding their hens by a totally organic diet, including organic corn, flax, and kelp.

Who manages organic farming regulations?

In The UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is the organisation that safeguards our natural environment, supports our world-leading food and farming industry. DEFRA is the overseers behind the organic regulations and guidelines but leaves the nitty-gritty application, inspection, and certification processes up to the 9 UK organic control bodies.

Pictures of the different organic labels.

There are a handful of organic bodies which certify products or producers to an organic standard. Each one carries a different stamp of approval.

A large number of Farmdrop’s growers are certified as organic by the UK’s leading food and farming organic certification body: the Soil Association.  The Soil Association want to ensure the highest possible standards of animal welfare and environmental and wildlife protection, and so set higher standards than EU organic regulation. They’re also the largest and oldest organic certification body in the UK, and have licensed over 70% of the country’s organic produce. So if you see their iconic stamp, then you can be sure it’s organic!

What are the advantages of organic farming?

So now we know what organic means, what are the advantages of organic food for people and the planet? Because organic farming doesn’t hold just an ethical advantage over conventional farming. There’s also widely researched environmental and nutritional benefits, with even some rarely-mentioned financial benefits, due to zero reliance on artificial pesticides, fertilisers, or growth enhancers.

From an ethical standpoint, it’s apparent that organic farming provides a superior environment and profound respect for farm animals and agricultural produce. These values promote quality over quantity, encouraging farmers to produce food that is free of contamination from man-made pesticides, GMOs, growth enhancers, or artificial additives, which in turn makes organic food a healthier choice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. According to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition (BJN), which analysed 343 peer-reviewed publications, researchers found that organic produce contains 18 to 69 percent higher concentrations of antioxidants, meaning that in one portion, organic foodsters consume two to three times more antioxidants than what can be found in one portion of non-organic produce.

Picture of a farmer checking the health of his soil.

Organic farms have higher levels of soil fertility and do a much better job of storing carbon in the soil than conventional farms.

Environmentally, there’s a huge benefit from avoiding man-made pesticides and fertilisers, as there’s a reduced risk of soil erosion and reduced effects on climate change. A major study comparing organic and chemically treated wheat fields found that the organic field had 20cm more topsoil and one-third less erosion than its chemically treated neighbour, and it’s because soil treated with chemicals cannot thrive in the long-run, nor can it retain carbon. In fact, if 10,000 medium-sized farms would convert to organic, they would store so much carbon in the soil that it would be equivalent to taking 1,174,400 cars off the road.

Additionally, organic farming suffers less from fluctuations in the financial market because it doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, expensive chemicals, or synthetic fertilisers to generate produce, unlike conventional farming methods. These are all manufactured by third-parties, rather than the farmers themselves, and the more of these artificial products are used, the less effective they become, like the pesticide resistance that many insects and organisms have developed over the years of excessive pesticide use.

Ultimately, by promoting organic food, consumers encourage organic farming, and it’s a positive, perpetual synergy of goodness for the UK, where more farmers are inspired to adopt organic methods and more consumers are inspired to adopt organic diets!

What are the disadvantages of organic farming?

As there are always two sides to the coin, organic food does come with a set of disadvantages. Sometimes the certification process may be too strict for some farmers who want to follow the spirit of the rules but not every last detail. Other times there’s insufficient marketing to really make organic food scalable and profitable.

Gaining the ‘certified organic’ status is an extreme challenge for some, especially because the labels of free-range, organic, and pasture-raised are more about the process – the rules regarding the tools used for food production – than the outcome. So, essentially, a farm could be sourcing free-range eggs that are just as, if not more nutritious, than organic eggs, and this will depend largely on the nutritional content of the food for the hens, and the environmental quality measures on the farm. Farmers like Nick and Jacob at Fosse Meadows Farm, for example, produce beautiful slow-grown chickens that are free-range instead of organic due to the non-organic feed and (straw) bedding they use:

“The reason why we don’t give them organic feed is due to the fact we grow our birds two weeks longer than organic producers. Basically, the longer you grow them the more they consume and the bigger they get – so it’s not economically viable to grow them to that length and feed them organic feed. Our farming practices are the same as organic in every other way.”

Picture of non-organic high-welfare poultry farmers.

Fosse Meadows Farm follows the organic guidelines in every respect but uses a non-organic feed because of the superior length of life they give their birds.

In some rare cases, there are even internal conflicts between what should and shouldn’t be considered organic produce. Some farmers in the United States, for instance, have voiced their disapproval to their National Organics Standards Board over the possibility that crops raised by hydroponic systems could carry the organic label, suggesting that crops should be soil-grown to be considered organic. So there’s still a lot of ground to cover over the concreteness of organic ideology, not just for certification bodies, but for farmers as well.

Marketing the uniqueness of organic produce is a big concern too. In some countries, like Spain, consumers don’t have enough information about the production methods and what it means for the environment’s conservation, biodiversity protection, or the food’s quality and safety. That’s why it’s vital for there to be new marketing strategies and actions to raise awareness, especially if we want more farmers to gain the specialised skills and knowledge required for organic farming to become scalable, which is entirely possible. While it is true that organic farming does require more land than conventional methods, organic farming can feed the world if we manage the demand for food by reducing waste and reducing the number of crops grown as animal feed. Today’s excessive tilling and use of chemicals can become tomorrow’s revival of cover cropping and mulching, and if this is done on a worldwide scale, scientists say it will have insurmountable benefits to the world’s CO2 levels.

Is organic food better?

There is definitive proof that organic farming is better for the environment and the nutritional value of the produce. But the tough bit is that, whether you’re a country trying to incorporate more organic farming, a farmer trying to get your certification, or a food lover trying to find a reputable source for healthy produce, attaining the reputable ‘organic’ status is challenging. If the labels are more about the process than the outcome, who can we trust? How can we truly tell if the food we buy comes from a reputable source?

Some farms follow the same high standards as organic and are worth buying from but you should check their credentials on animal welfare and antibiotic use, which is what we do at Farmdrop. We believe that it’s not just the organic and pasture-raised products on our platform that are a strong addition to the British household. It’s also the free-range and non-organic providers that may not meet some of the mandatory criteria for the organic certification but have gained our respect after learning who they truly are – not only as farmers, but also as people.

*If you want to learn more about some of the Soil Association’s guidelines revolving around organic farming, feel free to check out the Soil Association Standards for Farming and Growing*

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