What is organic food?

You might be surprised to learn what is organic food and what isn’t. One thing’s for sure – it’s much more than food grown without synthetic chemicals.

Organic food farming has been happening for eons in Australia; however a formal organic ‘industry’ didn’t happen until the 1980s. The people who established a formal organic food farming industry in Australia were also big on social and animal welfare.

This is why Sustainable Shopper likes to buy things that are certified organic. We know they’ve been checked by a third party each year and that the company making it has not only had to meet environmental requirements, they’ve also had to meet human and animal welfare requirements.

Of course a logo is only as good as the certifier and the auditors behind it and it’s not an infallible system, nor is it perhaps as strict as we’d like but it’s the best we have.

Certified organic farmer, processors, manufacturers and retailers must keep meticulous records of everything that’s bought in and everything that’s sold. They’re audited onsite each year and auditors check these records.

No synthetic chemicals

Certified organic food must be grown without synthetic chemicals. No synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungacides. Farmers can use naturally derived fertilisers such as composts and minerals.

(If you don’t think agricultural chemicals get into our food check out this RMIT study which showed that just one week on a mostly certified organic diet eliminated 90% of organophosphate residue from the urine of adults. Or this report which found 11% of produce in Western Australia exceeded acceptable standards.)

Grazing land cannot be overgrazed to the point that it leaves the ground bare. Organic standards also require farmers to maintain and encourage biodiversity but in reality it might not be particularly high up on the list of things an auditor strictly audits.

Seed, plants or ingredients derived from genetic engineering or GM cannot be used.

Free range and pasture fed

Animals must be free range and predominately pasture fed.

They can’t be routinely fed antibiotics (and if they are due to health reasons they can’t be sold as certified organic), they can’t be injected with synthetic hormones or have hormones added to feed.

Products like cosmetics and skincare must not be tested on animals but organic standards still allow things like mulesing, dehorning, beak trimming and many of the other animal ‘modification’ practices that farming inflicts on animals. If you want to avoid these practices, look for the Humane Choice logo.

There are also restrictions on transport times and animals must be slaughtered at certified organic abattoirs. This means the abattoirs must reduce stress as much as possible by keeping the animals in their social groups and killing them out of line of sight of other animals.

Food additives

Contrary to popular belief, you can find numbers in certified organic food. Additives are allowed but they are restricted so just because it’s organic, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the label. Synthetic colourings and preservatives aren’t allowed.

Wine can contain preservatives and potassium chloride (a gelling agent made from natural sources has negative side effects if too much is ingested) can be added to certified organic frozen and canned fruits and vegetables and sauces.

Fair and safe working conditions

While the requirements for workers are described in as little as a few pages within organic standards, they at least get a mention which is more than what can be said for many food accreditation programs.

Certified organic standards don’t prescribe wages for workers but they do insist companies practice fair and safe working conditions. Staff has the right to join unions and participate in collective bargaining. Children under 15 cannot work in certified organic businesses.

Most of these requirements are aimed at reducing exploitation in developing countries.

Why organic food wears other logos

Certified organic companies will still seek accreditation to similar schemes such as free range and cruelty free to drive the points home. It could also mean the company has taken extra steps – for example Humane Choice has more strict animal welfare requirements than certified organic.

We’d love to know what you think. Do you have any questions? Let us know.

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