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The Future

What Is Organic Food | Is it really chemical-free?

Residues of synthetic chemicals ending up in food is a side-effect of industrialised agriculture. Organic farming seeks to produce food that is free from such residues; but is it really possible to grow chemical-free food?

What is organic food?

The term ‘organic farming’ is believed to have been coined in 1940 by Lord Northbourne, an agriculturist from Oxford University.1 He proposed the idea of considering ‘the farm as an organism’ and modern organic farming continues to uphold this philosophy by taking into consideration how various practices affect the farm as a whole.

There is no single, universally accepted definition of organic food or organic farming. But in general, policies and legislation around organic farming strive to conserve biodiversity, recycle resources on the farm, and bring about ecological balance. Most countries have their own legislation to precisely define what is permitted on an organic farm and what is not. However, a common requirement worldwide is restricted use of synthetic chemicals.

Why are synthetic chemicals restricted on organic farms?

Throughout the history of agriculture, farmers have used the chemical properties of various elements and compounds to improve their crop yields. They are often called ‘agrochemicals’ and include a broad range of natural and synthetic substances which are used for protecting crops against pests or for enriching the soil. The Green Revolution, an agricultural movement which took place in the 1950s and 1960s, was largely responsible for introducing synthetic agrochemicals in developing countries and intensifying their use in developed countries.2

While these chemicals increased crop yield considerably by keeping insects and plant diseases at bay, their unrestrained use resulted in several adverse effects as well. Air and water pollution, reduced natural fertility of soil, death of non-targeted animals and plants, and potentially harmful residues in food are some of the serious consequences of excessive use of agrochemicals.2 One aim of organic farming is to produce food without creating these adverse side effects. That is why the use of synthetic chemicals is restricted in organic farming.    

How do organic farmers fight pests?

In agriculture, pests are any living organisms that negatively affect crops and livestock. They’re a little bit like uninvited guests who show up at your party, eat all your food, and then move on to the next party in the neighbourhood. Not cool at all. Therefore, it is important to take measures to keep pests away from farms, and in case they show up, make sure they leave.

Plant protection products (PPPs) are used to protect plants against pest attacks and can be of chemical or biological origin. The biological plant protection products are often called ‘organic pesticides’ or ‘biopesticides’. Organic farmers cannot use PPPs containing synthetic chemicals and must instead focus on preventive measures.

The technique of biological pest control, also known as biocontrol, involving the release of natural pest enemies (such as ladybugs) into the farm is a popular preventive measure.3 Natural pest repellents like essential oils made from garlic, black pepper, rosemary, and other common herbs are also used.4 Additionally, plant species that are inherently resilient to pests are preferred. In the EU, certain organic pesticides derived from plants, microorganisms, or minerals are permitted on organic farms.4

Can conventional pesticides still end up in organic food?

Unfortunately, yes. Even though organic farmers do not use synthetic pesticides, deposits of agrochemicals in the soil are hard to get rid of. These pesticides can still find their way into your food via indirect sources such as contaminated water and air.4 Of course, studies comparing levels of pesticide residues in organic and conventional food generally report a lower contamination in organic food.5

But chemical contamination doesn’t just happen in the field. Some food must be processed before they can be consumed. Food processing generally involves interaction with various chemicals such as preservatives, processing aids, and additives. Packaging material that comes in contact with food can also leach undesirable chemicals into food. Unprocessed organic foods such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains do not have to undergo many intermediate steps during their journey from the farm to your plate. So they are less likely to come into contact with additional chemicals.

The bottom line

But the good news is that food safety legislation establishes what levels of these chemicals are considered acceptable. Any food that is available on the market, organic or non-organic, must comply with these safety regulations. So, in conclusion, any food you eat should not contain unacceptable levels of chemical contaminants, but consuming food that has been produced organically helps reduce agrochemical pollution in the environment.

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