What Does Organic Mean? And Is Organic Better For The Planet?
Why Buy Organic?
If you want the short answer of what organic means and why it's better to buy organic - here are the key reasons:
- Better for wildlife
- Better for soil
- Better for farm animals
- Better for workers
- Better for you
- Better for the planet and helps combat climate change
But if you actually want to understand what the term 'organic' means and find out our five easiest ways of getting involved, then please read on…
Firstly, did you know when it comes to certain products, for instance food, ‘organic’ is a legal definition?
You may already be clued-up on the virtues of regenerative farming and the benefits it can bring to your life, but before I embarked on my journey to set up My Little Green Wardrobe, I simply didn’t understand what the term ‘organic’ really meant. Let alone, how it could be helpful in combating climate change.
Like many people, I had this vague notion of organic produce as this wishy-washy middle-class aspirational offering. Tomatoes that taste slightly better. One notch above the luxury Taste The Difference or similar line in supermarkets, say.
One for people who led affluent lifestyles, and who could afford it.
And even now, that is largely how organic produce is seen - and how it tends to be marketed.
While attending the AGM of the Organic Trade Board earlier this year, a representative of one of the Big Four supermarkets (Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys, Morrisons) conceded - and even apologised for - the inadequate messaging around organic and for the way organic produce has been sidelined.
He admitted that his supermarket chain could - and should - be doing more to champion organic produce - from the grassroots up. Supporting farmers to grow organic produce; increasing the organic offering in supermarket aisles and online; and communicating better to customers about what ‘organic’ is.
Despite these setbacks, the UK’s organic sector has grown massively over the last decade with the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2022 citing ten years of consecutive growth. It estimates the organic market now has a value of over £3 billion per year.
Great news, but this still only puts organic at 1.8% of total UK food sales.
In some European countries, organic is seen as an everyday choice - with Denmark seeing organic produce equating to 13% of total food sales in 2020.
But what actually is organic and why should you consider buying it?
What Does Organic Mean?
Organic means so much more than a buzzword used by hipsters, or food you ought to give your infant when they are weaning.
It takes a “whole system” approach to farming and food production.
And, when it comes to food, it is a legal definition.
Organic is a method of growing and producing food and other produce in a way which ensures the improved health of soils, ecosystems and humans.
It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of external - often toxic - inputs, like man-made fertilisers, pesticides and growth regulators, which frequently have adverse effects.
Organic farming methods are based on FOUR main principles:
- HEALTH - to sustain and enhance the health of soils, plants, animals, humans and the planet.
- ECOLOGY - to base agriculture on living ecological systems and cycles, working with them, emulating them and helping sustain them.
- CARE - Organic Agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations along with the environment.
- FAIRNESS - ensure fairness with regard to the environment, the ethical treatment of wildlife and fair life opportunities for workers.
What Are The Benefits Of Organic For Me?
Great, but what’s in it for me, you might say?
All of this sounds very nice, but why should you buy items that are more expensive at a time when the cost of living is already through the roof?
What’s Really In Your Food?
The number of chemicals used on crops in intensive farming range from those that help plants and animals grow, to increasing yields, as well as those that control pests.
And these chemicals get absorbed by the plants and animals they are used on - and passed on to us.
Chemicals like pesticides aren’t just harmful to pests. Pesticides are potentially toxic to humans and can have both acute and chronic health effects, depending on the quantity and ways in which a person is exposed.
Pesticide poisoning is a massive problem globally, and according to the WHO they may induce adverse health effects including cancer, effects on reproduction, immune or nervous systems.
We all know we should be eating five portions of fruit and veg a day, but what if much of it is covered in potentially harmful pesticides…?
According to data between 1990 and 2016, the use of glyphosate on British cereals has increased by well over ten times.
In low levels this herbicide causes imbalances in gut bacteria and damages liver, kidney and skin cells.
Long term effects include cancer, infertility, pregnancy problems, birth defects and respiratory diseases.
Read On For Our Five Best Ways to Get Involved With Organic September...
The Dirty Dozen
The US-based organisation Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts together an annual list of the Dirty Dozen - listing what it calls the ‘12 Most Contaminated Foods’.
You may be surprised to find strawberries are top of the list as the most pesticide-contaminated food. According to the EWG more than 90 percent of the strawberries sampled tested positive for two or more pesticides.
And washing them can only remove some of the pesticide residues as much of the chemicals are systemic after being sprayed on the plants and seeds as they grow. Many pesticides remain in some of the food we eat, despite washing and cooking.
Organic standards, on the other hand, prohibit the use of toxic substances. GM ingredients, hydrogenated fats and controversial artificial food colours, and preservatives including sodium benzoate, aspartame and the food colouring tartrazine are banned under organic standards.
Additionally, products cannot be washed in chlorine.
Organic is Better For You
Not only is organic produce potentially less harmful for you, in some examples it is also actively better for you.
Organic milk and meat contain up to 50% more omega-3 fatty acids, which the body cannot make on its own and which are essential for a healthy heart, and to maintain properly functioning cells throughout the body.
Research suggests livestock raised using organic methods have higher levels of this essential fat because they eat a more natural, grass-based diet containing more nutrients.
Organic is Better For Animals
What’s more, the animals that are bred and raised organically have a higher standard of animal welfare than intensive farming.
Animal welfare is one of the most important aspects of organic farming. Organic standards insist that animals are given plenty of space and fresh air, and that they are raised in conditions that suit their natural behaviour.
Smaller flocks and herds, and free-range access to the outdoors means organic animals don’t have to be routinely treated with antibiotics and wormers.
Mutilations like beak-trimming to prevent the aggressive side effects of stress are also not needed or allowed.
When it comes to textiles, animal products - like leather - come from animals that have been humanely raised in this way. In leather production the hides are then treated with plant-based tannins. No harmful chemicals, such as chromium, are used in the tanning process.
Is Organic More Eco-Friendly?
Organic takes a “whole system” approach to farming and food production. This means farming in a way that aims to support the whole food system, from soils and farm animals to the health of people, nature and the planet.
Organic farmers don’t use synthetic fertilisers which come from burning fossil fuels - meaning lower emissions are connected with this method of farming.
Organic standards also severely restrict the use of peat - an important carbon sink.
Additionally, regenerative farming methods actively help sequester more carbon into the soil.
According to research, organic farmland stores on average 3.5 tonnes more carbon for every hectare - an area roughly the size of two football pitches. It’s estimated this is the greenhouse gas equivalent of driving your car around the world almost one and a half times.
In fact, studies suggest if Europe’s farmland all followed organic principles, agricultural emissions could drop by 40-50% by 2050, with plenty of produce to feed the growing population healthy diets.
Over the last 40 years, almost a third of the world’s arable soils have been lost to pollution or erosion. Conversely, it can take around 1000 years for 3cm of topsoil to form.
'60 Harvests Left'
Alarmingly, a senior UN official said in 2014 we may have fewer than 60 harvests left if soil degradation continues at the existing rate. Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization warned that all too frequently policy makers ignore the ground beneath our feet.
And with 95% of food production relying on soil, it has never been more important to farm in a regenerative way that nourishes the earth, and creates healthy living soils.
Organic farming is better for the long term health of soils, and the more diverse range of microbes in the soils helps crops grow without artificial fertilisers.
Every good gardener knows that earthworms are your friend - and are also a sign of healthy soil. Not only do organic farms have more earthworms and healthier ecosystems under the soil, but so too do they have greater biodiversity above the ground too.
Since 1970, 41% of Britain’s wildlife species have declined in population with intensive farming practices identified as the primary driver for this depletion.
Studies suggest, compared to intensive farms, organic farms have on average 30% more wildlife species and 50% more pollinators, like bees and butterflies. Some research indicates there are up to seven times more bees in organic grain fields.
Three quarters of food crops depend on pollinators such as these. And it is also vital for other key industries including the clothing and textile industry which relies on the pollination of cotton plants to produce clothing, bedding, curtains etc…
Why is Organic Clothing Better?
The production of organic clothes takes a holistic approach to nature, the environment and human health - without the use of harmful synthetic substances.
Similarly to food production, organic fabrics including cotton, linen and hemp use no man-made toxic pesticides and fertilisers which contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and damage the soil, biodiversity and human health.
Organic Cotton is Planet Friendly
Cotton produced using these methods requires up to 91% less water to grow compared to conventional cotton, in part because crops are grown on healthier soil which itself holds more water.
Organic farming uses a method of crop rotation to help keep soils healthy, using the likes of clover and legumes to fix nitrogen into the soil, replenishing it - rather than using fossil fuel-based fertilisers.
This has a dual impact of reducing GHG emissions and providing farmers with a separate income stream from a variety of crops - making them less vulnerable if one crop fails.
Softer, Stronger, Longer
No, not Andrex... organic cotton.
Because organic cotton comes from healthier plants, the cotton fibres are stronger, longer - and yes, softer - leading to a superior, more durable product.
Clothing made from organic cotton is softer next to the skin and will not cause irritation because no harmful chemicals are used during the growing or manufacturing processes.
This is great for babies and children who may have more sensitive skin. And great for the workers who don’t have to handle toxic chemicals.
Importantly, when it comes to textiles the term ‘organic’ is not a legal definition - meaning some clothing producers can claim clothing is organic when it only has minimal organic content.
This is why it is crucial to look for stringent certifications like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) - a system which guarantees organic production methods from farm all the way through to factory.
Principles of fairness are also incorporated within this certification and ensures all workers are treated ethically and paid a fair wage.
Why Organic September?
Organic September is organised by the Soil Association and has been running for more than ten years.
September has traditionally been the month to celebrate organic produce in the UK.
It follows on from the British summer time, when the range of homegrown organic fruit and vegetables are typically bountiful.
But it also serves as a great moment for businesses who farm organic produce, or manufacture organic clothing and beauty products to come together and shout about the benefits of their products both for you and the planet.
These brands are acting with the highest integrity to support nature, conserve wildlife and protect the planet.
How Do I get Involved with Organic September?
Now that I’ve spelled out what organic actually means - if you’re still with me - hopefully you’ll agree choosing organic is better for nature and for you.
So, here are five great ways to get involved with Organic September:
1. Make an Organic Swap
Yes, the economy is in crisis and after a tumultuous few years no-one quite knows what’s ahead of us, but you don’t have to make a wholesale switch to organic.
Even swapping one or two of your usual purchases each week for the rest of this month is a great start.
And if you have favourite organic products already, then try one more.
2. Organic Isn’t Just Food!
Think about buying a garment of clothing made from organic cotton - it’ll last you longer and you’ll love how wonderfully soft it is.
Or beauty products that are made from organic ingredients. Think how much better it’ll be for your skin - which, after all, is the whole point, right?
3. Support Local Independent Shops or Farmers Markets
Helping small suppliers and businesses is one of the keys to living and shopping sustainably. These artisans have made their products with love - and usually with higher welfare standards than can be found on the high street.
Even one or two purchases will help support the local economy and smaller, more ethical production values.
4. Think About Buying Organic as A Gift
Organic baby gifts for example are always a hit for new babies or at a baby shower. It’s a little more special and shows you’ve really put some thought into buying the best for that special someone.
5. Grow Your Own
And of course, the best way to get involved with Organic September is to grow your own fruit or veg. Although obviously this won’t just be for September. Sure you can convert a whole section of your garden to a vegetable plot and go the full nine yards. Or you could just have a couple of tomato plants on your windowsill, or salad leaves growing in a window box.
Whatever you choose, I hope this article gives you food for thought on how and why to make your next choices. And the key thing to remember is that all you need to do is start somewhere!