Sustainable food | Organic food

What is organic food?

The word “organic” refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Defined more by how it cannot be made rather than how it can be made, organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Farmers who grow organic produce and meat don’t use conventional methods to fertilize, control weeds or prevent livestock disease. For example, rather than using chemical weedkillers, organic farmers may conduct more sophisticated crop rotations and spread mulch or manure to keep weeds at bay.

Organic does not mean natural. There is no legal definition as to what constitutes a natural food. However, the food industry uses the term natural to indicate that a food has been minimally processed and is preservative-free. Natural foods can include organic foods, but not all natural foods are organic. Only foods labeled organic have been certified as meeting  some standards. Any food product sold as ‘organic’ falls under the EU regulations 834/2007 and 889/2008.  This means that the product must have been produced to these regulations and inspected and certified by a registered certification body, such as Soil Association Certification.

How do you know if a food is ‘organic’?

  • For foods to be labeled 100 percent organic, they must contain only organic ingredients.
  • for food to be labeled organic, they must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt.
  • Products labeled as made with organic ingredients, contain at least 70% organic ingredients.

Is Organic Food Better than Conventional Food?

Organic and conventional food must meet the same quality and safety standards. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food by the way it is grown, handled and processed. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that it is more nutritious or safer than conventional food. However, the answer isn’t yet clear. A recent study examined the past 50 years’ worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. The researchers concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are comparable in their nutrient content. Research in this area is ongoing.

In addiction, a 2002 study found that ‘Organically grown foods consistently had about one-third as many residues as conventionally grown foods‘; additionally, several studies corroborate this finding by having found that that while 77 percent of conventional food carries synthetic pesticide residues, only about 25 percent of organic food does. Some studies have linked pesticides in our food to everything from headaches to cancer to birth defects — but many experts maintain that the levels in conventional food are safe for most healthy adults. Even low-level pesticide exposure, however, can be significantly more toxic for fetuses and children (due to their less-developed immune systems) and for pregnant women (it puts added strain on their already taxed organs), according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences. Pesticide contamination is also a concern in meats and dairy products (animals consume large quantities of vegetable, that if traditionally grown may contain large doses of pesticides, depending on their diet), moreover many scientists are concerned about the antibiotics being given to most farm animals: Many are the same antibiotics humans rely on, and overuse of these drugs has already enabled bacteria to develop resistance to them, rendering them less effective in fighting infection, says Chuck Benbrook, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Organic Center, a nonprofit research organization.

Is buying organic better for the environment?

Organic farming reduces pollutants in groundwater and creates richer soil that aids plant growth while reducing erosion, according to the Organic Trade Association. It also decreases pesticides that can end up in your drinking glass; in some cities, pesticides in tap water have been measured at unsafe levels for weeks at a time, according to an analysis performed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). (To find out about the safety of your tap water, visit the EWG website at ewg.org/tapwater/yourwater.) Plus, organic farming used 50 percent less energy than conventional farming methods in one 15-year study.

Are there downsides to buying organic?

One common concern with organic food is cost. Organic foods typically cost more than do their conventional counterparts. Higher prices are due, in part, to more expensive farming practices. Because organic fruits and vegetables aren’t treated with waxes or preservatives, they may spoil faster. Also, some organic produce may look less than perfect — odd shapes, varying colors or smaller sizes. However, organic foods must meet the same quality and safety standards as those of conventional foods.

When is it worth to spend a little more?

If you can afford it, buy local and organic. Farmers’ markets carry reasonably priced locally grown organic and conventional food.

If you can’t always afford organic, do spend the extra money when it comes to what the EWG calls the dirty dozen: peaches, strawberries, nectarines, apples, spinach, celery, pears, sweet bell peppers, cherries, potatoes, lettuce, and grapes. These fragile fruits and vegetables often require more pesticides to fight off bugs compared to hardier produce, such as asparagus and broccoli.

More reading about organic food:

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