Sustainable Eating Part 3: Should I eat organic?

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My last two blog posts focused on the little things you can do at home to avoid wasting food, an important part of “sustainable eating”. But another side of this enormous and varied topic is sustainability for the environment. A question that regularly comes up is whether the additional cost of buying organic is worth it. I’ve focused on plant produce here given the topic of organic meat and dairy is huge and less relevant to me as I don’t eat meat (although I will say that personally I always choose organic dairy).

Firstly, it is important to understand what organic produce actually is. Organic means avoiding fertilisers and pesticides, and instead using husbandry techniques to control pests and disease, and to maintain soil fertility (note, a limited number of approved products and substances are allowed in the processing of organic food). In Europe, a product can only be labelled as Organic if it has been inspected and certified by an official control body. In the UK there are nine of these including the Soil Association which is one of the best known. They have a great website here if you want to learn more: www.soilassociation.org

Organic is positive for the environment and for our bodies in its limited use of chemical nasties, and for me, it is definitely something to strive towards from an environmental and personal perspective. However, organic is generally more expensive so just isn’t obtainable for everyone. In my view, if it’s a choice between less organic veg, or more, non-organic veg, the latter is better! A healthy diet full of varied vegetables and fruit is more important to prioritise than buying only organic, which is a nice to have on top.

It is also worth noting that you can get amazing, local, naturally grown produce that is not certified organic. Many small producers follow natural growing methods and avoid the use of pesticides, but are not registered organic. Why? Well, gaining certification is a timely and costly process. It can take years to become fully certified and this is just too restrictive for some smaller producers.

Personally, for this reason, I am more interested in knowing where my food has come from and the ethos of the producer than whether it actually has an organic certificate. I have been involved with www.foodassembly.com over the past year, which connects local producers and consumers. Buying through such a scheme is an amazing way of finding out exactly where and how your food is produced. Local independent shops and markets are also great. Get chatting to the shop/ stall keepers – they will no doubt be delighted to tell you all about the origins of their produce!

So should you buy organic? Well, I think you should buy mindfully and get the best quality you can afford. Try to learn more about the origins of what you are eating. Do you know how and where it was produced? Also, do compare prices. For some items (mushrooms are a good example), organic is usually pretty much the same price as non-organic. For some more exotic items, organic may not be an option at all. So pick and choose, perhaps aim for organic for cheaper items you eat regularly, and don’t worry so much for things that are just an occasional treat.

On a side note, it is worth highlighting that non-food produce like toiletries and cosmetics are NOT regulated in the same way as food and there is currently no legal standard in place for organic cosmetics.  The bodies like the Soil Association do certify non-food products, so do look out for their logo, but it is worth being aware that products can in fact be called organic or natural even when they only contain a tiny percentage of organic ingredients. For example an “organic” shampoo may be made with 2% organic essential oils, but the other 98% may be full of chemicals! Rather ridiculous and worth being aware of.

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