Non-organic methods of farming are a recent invention – for millennia, humans have been farming and producing crops using natural pesticides and fertilisers, and have not traditionally given antibiotics to cattle. However, in the drive to increase yields and maximise profits, as well as to avoid famines, non-organic methods have become the norm. Organic foods cost more than non-organic foods – it is a simple equation that organic farms have lower yields than non-organic farms and higher labour costs, so have to sell at a higher price. In our recent tough times paying over the odds is particularly difficult to stomach (puns always intended!). While there is little scientific evidence to support the nutritional benefits of only eating organic foods (2010 review study), I think it is just common sense that we should try to avoid exposure to various chemicals which aren’t strictly necessary. This is why the USA Environmental Working Group’s annual list of dirty dozen foods is rather important (as well as their two extra “plus” foods which are nearly at the level for inclusion). You can therefore hedge your bets a bit if your budget allows a little leeway.
Foods on the Dirty Dozen list
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Hot Peppers
- Nectarines (imported)
- Red peppers (bell peppers)
and on the plus list:
- Kale/Collard Greens
However, this is a list on foods for sale in the USA and should be taken with caution by those in the UK (like I am). Since the UK imports 95% of its organic foods, mostly from Europe (BBC news article from 2010), this is still therefore relevant to the debate, as you then get into the carbon footprint issues of food miles. Organic foods are not necessarily local after all. If you’re more concerned with your own personal intake of chemicals and less about the environmental impact of transportation, then this list can be argued to be relevant still due to the likelihood that the major pests these particular crops are susceptible to are quite universal, especially when taking into account that some of these foods have skins which tend towards absorbing the chemicals more readily.
What particularly shocked me about the UK rules for organic produce is that they’re so vague – there is no guarantee that only organic methods have been used at all. Until as recently as 2011, chicken feed was allowed to include some (5%) non-organic feed, which had been reduced from a higher number of 20% in previous years (same BBC news article as above). Antibiotics are still allowed to be used when an animal is ill – although I couldn’t find information about how that ill animal would be treated after they’d had their antibiotics on the Soil Association Website (Would they be segregated from the rest to prevent spread of infection? If they are a dairy cow, would they still be milked? If so, how would that milk be treated/labelled? If they were shortly to be slaughtered, would they be kept to the side and labelled as non-organic? Or would they keep their organic label?). There is also a list of allowed non-organic items which can make up 5% of a supposedly organic product – is it just me, or does that sound like a cop out?
I have only recently started buying some organic fruit and veg – mostly due to finding out about the Dirty Dozen List last year. However, with meat I have always tended to go more for the food miles and free range issues – although I’m now considering going organic with them as well, but won’t until I hear either some stronger evidence supporting organic food, or some stronger rules ensuring organic actually means organic.
- The Organic Food Shopper’s Guide (Amazon.co.uk link; Amazon.com link)
- The Organic Cook’s Bible (Amazon.co.uk link; Amazon.com link)