What Does ‘Organic’ Really Mean?
What does organic mean? How do we know that the food we eat is truly organic? Organic food is a complicated industry, and in order for their produce to be certified as ‘organic’, farms must undergo rigorous checks from independent governmental or regulatory inspectors to ensure they are adhering to organic principles. But what standards qualify food as organic?
4 Organic Certification Standards1
To understand organic food, we first have to take a look at what the main parts of EU organic certification are:
- Reducing environmental impact and improving sustainability
- Limiting chemical pesticides and antibiotics
- Avoiding genetically modified (GM) produce
- Ensuring animal welfare
Reducing environmental impact and improving sustainability
Organic produce reduces environmental impact and improves the sustainability of the land. This is through fertilising the soil using organic material (manure and compost), and rotating crops multi-annually to keep the soil fertile. This type of farming has been around for centuries and is a key part in making sure all the necessary natural nutrients are in the soil.
Limiting chemical pesticides & antibiotics
The use of conventional pesticides and unnatural food additives are routinely banned for the produce to get organically certified. Both the farm and the produce must be certified, with organic farmers using natural products to keep the process organic. Antibiotics can only be used when absolutely necessary, for example when animals are sick.
Avoiding genetic modification (GM)
Similarly for avoiding genetically modified (GM) produce, EU-certified organic produce (or imported from outside the EU) cannot be genetically modified; as this could be harmful to the environment. Longitudinal data from the USA has indicated that for at least some produce, the increased use of herbicides has a negative effect on the environment through increased contamination of local ecosystems.2
Animal livestock welfare
Another key principle of organic produce is animal/livestock welfare. In order to be certified as ‘organic’, animals must have been raised in conditions that meet specific standards:
- Animals must be given sufficient living space (either indoor and/or outdoor)
- Be fed using feed that has not been genetically modified,
- Be given antibiotics sparingly, only when animals are actually sick..
- Similarly, animals that are certified as ‘organic’ must be killed under sedation or stunning, to reduce any pain they feel.
These organic principles help guide farms towards reducing their environmental impact and giving animals and livestock a better life, which are key reasons why many of us choose to buy organic produce.
How to identify organic food: organic food logo labels
In theory, it’s easy to identify organic products on the shelves, since they should carry an organic food logo label. However, it’s not quite that simple, as there are many different organic certifications, and many different organic food logo labels used on packaging. While the many logos and certifications can be confusing, they can also provide additional information that actually increases the trust we can place in a product.
EU organic certification
Within the EU, the EU leaf is the main label used to denote certified organic food. This has been a mandatory label since 2010 for all organic food produced in the EU or imported into the EU. This is a guarantee that the produce is at least 95% organic and the remaining 5% is closely controlled. The 5% must not be from the prohibited list or from genetically-modified sources. The EU leaf certifies the organic principles have been followed.
National & industry organic certification
However, there are multiple organisations at both the national level, (such as the UK’s Soil Association, in the UK) and at the industry level, (such as Demeter, which is based in Germany,) which certify organic food at even higher standards than those demanded by EU regulations. This helps differentiate the organic products which are holding themselves to the highest standard, although understanding the various different logos in your country can often be quite the task!
Can we prove ‘organic’ food really is organic?
Even with these organic food logos and the certifications behind them, there are still many producers who are misleading shoppers by falsely marketing their produce as organic, which undermines trust in organic food logo labels. Luckily, researchers are developing new methods to increase traceability in the food chain, which will eventually help minimise fraudulent organic foods.
1. Inspecting organic farms
The first approach is to put extensive procedures in place to regularly check farms and test products to ensure they are not using unauthorised pesticides, additives or antibiotics. However, such rigorous checks are difficult to conduct regularly on every piece of organic produce, especially those coming from outside the EU.
2. Digital tracing for organic produce
Researchers are also exploring a digital approach, developing traceability programs which allow us to follow the full chain of the organic produce: simply scanning a QR code with our smartphones could allow us to track it from the production farm through processing centres like abattoirs, to the shelves of the store. Such transparency would help us be more confident that when we buy organic, we get organic. You can find more information for other questions on organic produce at the European Commission website.
Read more about how a new digital approach could help us track our food and where it comes from.