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.