Our planet is facing its fair share of problems, many of which are directly influenced by our food and farming system. Climate change, declining wildlife, rising costs of diet-related ill health; these are all areas that need to be addressed and, while there is no quick fix, reviewing our approach to food and agriculture will be a vital part of the solution.

One of the ways we can do this is through choosing organic, but many of us still don’t understand what exactly ‘organic’ really means.

The benefits of organic to the environment, health, animal welfare and wildlife are broad, but for now we’ll stick with the basics. Whether you’re a farmer considering converting to an organic system, or a consumer thinking about trying some organic produce, there are five key things that differentiate organic food from the other options out there.

Fewer pesticides

In non-organic farming there are close to 300 pesticides available for routine use. But after spraying, these chemicals

can pollute the environment, run into rivers and streams, disrupt the ecosystem, and ultimately make their way into our food. In organic farming on the other hand, there are just 20 pesticides available, all of which are derived from natural ingredients and only permitted under very restricted circumstances.

Organic farmers have plenty of innovative ways of growing without pesticides, from crop selection and rotation through to novel management techniques for pests and diseases. They are proving every day that we don’t need pesticides to grow our food.

Furthermore, the use of artificial chemical fertiliser is prohibited in organic farming. Instead, organic farmers nurture their soil to ensure it has the fertility and nutrients required for growing a healthy crop.

The highest standards of animal welfare

Animal welfare is high on the agenda in organic certification.

Organic animals have access to pasture whenever weather permits, and suitable indoor living space when it doesn’t. They are able to graze and forage, and are fed a diet that is as natural as possible.

Organic standards for animal welfare cover everything from housing and food to transport and slaughter: it’s a whole-life approach.

No routine use of antibiotics

Antibiotic resistance is a looming human health crisis, and overuse of antibiotics in farming is one of the contributing factors.

Organic animals are never routinely treated with antibiotics, and organic standards prevent the use of any antibiotics that are classed as critically important to human health. By keeping smaller herd sizes, and regularly moving animals to fresh pasture, organic farmers are taking preventative measures to stop the accumulation and spread of disease, meaning less use of antibiotics and other drugs such as wormers.

No GM ingredients

We may not have much of an appetite for GM food in the UK, but that doesn’t mean GM isn’t creeping into our diets. Over a million tonnes of GM crops are important each year, and they are used as animal feed for non-organic livestock. This is not an option for organic farmers, who feed their livestock on a GM-free diet made up of organic forage and grain.

Nutritional differences

Organic foods have been shown to be naturally nutritionally different to their non-organic counterparts.

Meat and milk, for example, have around 50% more omega-3 fatty acids, and fruit and vegetables can contain up to 68% more antioxidants.

Beyond the natural differences, organic standards mean that hydrogenated fats and controversial artificial food

colours and preservatives are banned in organic foods. Avoiding additives like this, alongside reducing exposure to pesticides, is one of the leading motivations for organic shoppers.

When it comes to people buying organic, this all comes down to one simple message: food as it should be.

Organic farming and food production takes commitment and attention to detail, and it’s backed up by certification to a robust set of standards that are defined by EU law. That means any food or drink labelled as organic has been required, by law, to meet those standards. And that’s precisely what makes it a trusted, traceable option.

Would you like further information about what organic means for you? Find out more on the Soil Association website.

First appeared in The Landsman.

Today, people across the globe are joining forces in an appreciation of soil. For three decades the fact that World Soil Day even exists has slipped under my radar, but this year I’m following it with interest. Why? Because this year I’ve come to realise; conversations about soil are some of the most vital conversations we need to have.

Most of us probably don’t talk about – or, for that matter, think about – soil on a regular basis. But, when you do think about it, you start to appreciate the influence it has for every one of us every day. That influence was set out perfectly for me by environmental activist Satish Kumar, who I had to pleasure of hearing speak some months ago. His message was this: ‘we are all soil transformed’. That might sound like a slightly eccentric statement but, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. As humans we rely on food to give us the energy and nutrition to survive, and food comes from the soil: the vegetables and fruits we eat grow from it; the meat we consume comes from animals that graze on grass or feed on grain that grows from it. So, by default, we rely on the soil for our very survival.

Given recent evaluations, that leaves us in a bit of a quandary…because, in their current condition, our soils will only last another seventy harvests. Industrial pollution and intensive agriculture are killing our soils: they are compacted, lacking in organic matter, and eroding. It takes a thousand years for one centimetre of fertile topsoil to form but we’re losing multiple thousands of square metres of it by the minute. Climate change will make that worse; extreme weather conditions will mean more erosion in hotter and drier seasons and more soils being washed away in heavy rainfall. Given that soils act as a carbon store, they should be helping us in the fight against climate change, but we need to start looking after them if we want them to look after us.

Soil is a complex thing, full of life, from bacteria to bugs, all working together to break down and revitalise the earth and maintain nutrient levels. When soil is healthy this ecosystem works in harmony and has the ability to do what it needs to, but when we introduce an imbalance we can throw the whole system out of line: whether that’s the addition of chemicals, the compaction of the earth through heavy machinery, or the removal of nutrients at too high a rate through monocropping, not looking after the soil can significantly reduce its performance. And that has a knock-on effect on the whole food and farming system.

I speak with plenty of farmers in my day-job, and soil health is a popular topic of conversation. Soil is a farmer’s most precious asset: their livelihood depends on their ability to grow crops, and the healthier the soil the healthier the harvest. I’ve come across lots of farmers, both organic and non-organic, who are exploring new methods for building resilient healthy soils and seeking ways to reduce activity that has a negative influence. Their reasons for doing so are varied: some have been proactively tending to their soil health for years; some have seen a reduction in productivity and are looking for a fix; and some are facing the uncertain future of agrichemicals and recognising soil health as critical to a good yield. Their levels of commitment differ too, with some looking for a quick fix or temporary measure while others have built their entire growing system around their soil. While it’s encouraging to see this activity taking place, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s enough…or whether something more strategic needs to happen in order for us to make a real difference.

Encouragingly, it seems that Government are upping their game too. George Eustice recently stated that soil will sit at the heart of post-Brexit agricultural policy, indicating a wholesale review of our existing soil management techniques and a renewed focus on environmental improvement. Just days later it was announced that mandatory soil testing will come into force next year as part of new rules to protect the water environment from chemical run-off. And, of course, we have heard several times from Michael Gove that revamped payment schemes will reward farmers who demonstrate environmentally-friendly practices – of which protecting, and improving, soil health is one example. It’s a clear directive that a discernible commitment to soil health will soon be an imperative, rather than an autonomous, action.

It will be interesting to see just what the new agricultural policy looks like, and how far it goes in outlining and incentivising healthy soil. But considering the influence of soil on food security, climate change, and the future of agriculture, it seems clear that the emphasis on healthy soils needs to be robust.

By this time next year, I’m hoping that World Soil Day might be more than just a day of appreciation and campaigning….perhaps we’ll also be celebrating turning a corner towards healthier soil, and perhaps we’ll be enjoying a slightly better outlook on the future for one of our planet’s most precious things.