Frequently Asked Questions
Organic food is about more than just a label. It is about methods of farming and food production which are kind to the environment, concerned for animal welfare and thought to be healthier for humans to eat.
If you buy organic food (and other products) you are helping to support a system which benefits you, the farmer or processor producing it, the animals raised on farms and the countryside.
Here are some common questions and answers about organic food:
Q. Is organic food really more healthy?
A. Some studies say ‘yes’, others say ‘not necessarily’, but the evidence is growing in favour of organic all the time. One good example is that research has shown that organic milk contains almost two-thirds more omega 3 fatty acids, which are good for unborn children and may combat heart disease and the effects of arthritis.
Q. Does organic food actually taste better?
A. Anecdotally, most people will say a resounding ‘yes’. It’s a point that is hard for scientists to prove though, because it’s so subjective. You have to decide for yourself.
Q. Does organic production benefit farmers?
A. Yes – in many ways. Lots of farmers say they feel empowered by organic systems, which make them use their brains (not chemicals) to solve problems. Because there are only very limited pesticides allowed in organics, farm workers should be at less risk from exposure to chemicals. Growing organic produce can also open up new markets for farmers.
Q. Why is organic farming better for animals?
A. The welfare of animals is one of the key principles of organic farming and their well-being is written into the regulations organic producers must follow. Animals are held at lower stocking densities than non-organic and must have access to the outdoors (weather permitting) and an appropriate diet at all times. While organic systems aim to avoid using antibiotics in animals, they are allowed (in fact, required) if the health or welfare of the animal is at risk or they are the only way to restore its full health. While on antibiotics, and for a period afterwards, that animal’s product must not be sold as organic. This withdrawal period for organic products is twice as long as that for non-organic ones.
Q. Are ‘organic’ animals ‘free range’?
A. Yes, but with even more benefits. All animals raised organically are automatically free-range because the rules demand it. They must have access to the outdoors (weather permitting) and be held below certain stocking densities. In addition, there are all the other benefits of the organic system, explained throughout this document.
Q. Can organic food contain genetically modified (GM) elements?
A. Genetic modification of plants and animals goes against the principles of organic food and farming. No GM inputs are allowed in the organic system and if they are found in produce it cannot be sold as organic. The EU has revised the organic regulations and will actually allow food with up to 0.9% GM contamination to be sold as organic and not labelled as GM. That could mean almost one in a hundred mouthfuls of organic food could be genetically modified. However, Organic Farmers & Growers is standing by the 0.1% level (the lowest detectable in current science) and enforcing that with its licensees. If GM trace is found OF&G will withdraw organic certification from that product.
Q. Why is organic farming better for the countryside?
A. Organic farming uses less intensive methods to produce food and encourages diversity of wildlife. Reports have shown that, for instance, certain types of bird are starting to flourish around organic farms. Strict controls on the types of pesticides, and when they can be used, drastically reduces the leaching of harmful elements into water courses and damage to wildlife (insects, for example). Organic farmers use effective systems of crop rotation to improve soil fertility and remove pests and disease.
Q. Can organic farmers use pesticides and other chemicals?
A. Only a limited list of carefully selected pesticides are approved for use in organic farming, where there are no natural or system-based alternatives, and then as a last resort. Organic farmers do not use herbicides, instead they rely on crop rotation, well-timed cultivation, hand or mechanical weeding and carefully selecting crop varieties.
Q. Do organic farmers use antibiotics on their animals?
A. Not routinely, as can be the case in other types of farming. Instead organic farmers try to use holistic methods wherever possible. However, if antibiotics are necessary, on the advice of a vet, to prevent or reduce an animal’s suffering, or to return it to full health, they must be given. The welfare of the animal becomes the main concern. While on antibiotics, and for a period afterwards, that animal’s product must not be sold as organic. This withdrawal period for organic products is twice as long as that for non-organic ones.
Q. Does organic food cost more?
A. Though not always the case, the shelf or farm gate price of organic food can sometimes be higher for a number of very good reasons. It costs more to produce because it is more labour intensive, crops are grown less often in the same piece of ground and animals are held at lower stocking densities, for their well-being. The careful controls placed on organic production (including the licensing system) add to the costs of production and organic source materials, such as seeds and animal feeds, cost more than non-organic versions. But we should always bear in mind that organic farming does not have costly environmental impacts, such as the expense of cleaning up polluted water courses and treating drinking water to remove chemicals used in non-organic production. As the costs of chemical inputs to non-organic farmers continue to rise, we are likely to see more parity in pricing.
Q. Where is the best place to buy organic produce?
A. Organic food is now widely available and where you buy it is a matter for you. If you can get it from a local farmer, who perhaps runs a box delivery scheme, you will be helping them to make a decent living (no middlemen taking a big cut), cutting down on environmentally harmful packaging, reducing the road or air miles food has to travel and generally supporting your community. However, we recognise that supermarkets have good ranges of organic food (although quite a bit is imported), they provide access to organic food for everyone and are convenient for many people.
Q. Can anyone just claim to be an organic producer?
A. Definitely not. Organic is the only system of farming in the UK which must meet legal requirements to use the name. Anyone calling their product organic must be inspected and certified by a body like Organic Farmers & Growers. When they are licensed, organic products must show a certification number on the label. If they are certified by OF&G the label will say ‘GB-ORG-02’ and may also show our logo. Other United Kingdom certification bodies have different identifiers, but one of them (or an equivalent international identifier) must be on display. Anyone claiming to be organic who does not have a license is breaking the law. Imported goods will carry the mark of the certification body of the country in which they were produced, but the import will have been supervised by an EU certification body.
Q. How can I be sure that farmers and food processors are sticking to organic standards?
A. It is the responsibility of DEFRA and the control bodies to ensure that all of the standards are being met. Organic producers are inspected at least annually and can also be subject to spot inspections to ensure they are complying fully. The control bodies have continuing dialogue between them, through a variety of forums, to ensure the integrity of the system.
Q. Isn’t organic farming just an old-fashioned way of doing things?
A. The answer to this is ‘yes and no’. Organic farming draws on thousands of years of farming knowledge and experience, instead of relying on chemicals created in the last fifty years or so. Farmers have to be creative in solving problems and in the ways they market their produce. So, in many ways, organics are at the cutting edge of farming and food sales and setting an example for a sustainable future. Old techniques are combined with the latest research and scientific backing.
Q. Is organic produce better than that from non-organic farms?
A. At OF&G we don’t like to say ‘better’, we like to say ‘different’. Most non-organic farmers also care about the countryside and the welfare of their animals and it would be unfair to suggest otherwise. However, we think that organic methods take care for the environment, animals and the end product to another level, giving the consumer the choice to eat food produced in this sustainable way that they can be sure is non-GM.
Q. Does organic food carry greater risks of food poisoning?
A. Organic food must meet all of the safety and quality standards applied to non-organic foods. Critics of organic farming sometimes claim that because organic farmers use farmyard manure, there is a greater risk of pathogen contamination on organic crops. However, farmyard manure is also extensively used in non-organic farming, but with less strict controls than are applied to organic methods. It has also been claimed that because organic farms don’t routinely use antibiotics this allows bacteria (particularly E.coli) into the food chain. But research has shown that overuse of antibiotics may have resulted in resistant strains of E.coli in non-organic production. There is evidence to suggest that organic animals build up a natural resistance to these bacteria.
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