But is it organic?

My recent enthusiasm for local, unadulterated milk has resulted in conversations with various people and often one of the  first questions asked is ‘But is it organic?’

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Fresh from the farm

It’s interesting that this question keeps arising. It’s not so many years ago that no one would have thought to ask, but now ‘organic’ has become the label that we seek to reassure ourselves of quality, ethics, sustainability… a multitude of features that may be real or may be perceived. So what is the truth and does it matter whether an item has the ‘organic’ branding?

Here in the UK there are nine approved organic certification bodies, the largest of which is The Soil Association.

The Soil Association is the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use….
The Charity has a wholly owned subsidiary Soil Association Certification Limited, the UK’s largest organic certification body.  This is run as a not for profit company that as well as helping to deliver parts of the Charity’s strategy also generates financial returns that are ploughed back into the Charity’s wider work.

So the term ‘Organic’ refers specifically to legal certification… but what are producers certified for? Well, the definition is covered by EU law

Organic production respects natural systems and cycles. Biological and mechanical production processes and land-related production should be used to achieve sustainability, without having recourse to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In organic farming, closed cycles using internal resources and inputs are preferred to open cycles based on external resources. If the latter are used, they should be

  • organic materials from other organic farms
  • natural substances
  • materials obtained naturally, or
  • mineral fertilisers with low solubility.

Exceptionally, however, synthetic resources and inputs may be permissible if there are no suitable alternatives. Such products, which must be scrutinised by the Commission and EU countries before authorisation, are listed in the annexes to the implementing regulation (Commission Regulation (EC) No. 889/2008).

However, it’s worth noting that any grower can follow the organic guidance without paying for the certification; in this case, however, they can’t legally label their produce as being ‘organic’.

A little while ago I met someone who was convinced that we should only buy organic produce, but I have to say that I disagree. Many small producers simply can’t afford organic certification, and many producers whose systems are low-input don’t quite fulfil the criteria. And, of course, there’s always the trade-off between locally produced non-organic produce and organic produce transported from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

The answer? Well, nothing is simple, and if you have to shop in a supermarket, then the labels are all you can rely on. However, if you can buy from smaller shops or direct from the producer, then things are different. In these cases, you can have a conversation about the food – you can talk about the way it is produced, how far it has travelled and what chemicals have been applied.

The farm milk I am buying isn’t ‘organic’, but

  • the milking parlour (and other energy required by the farm) is produced by a wind turbine
  • as much of the cattle feed as possible is produced on site
  • the cows are not routinely given antibiotics (they don’t need to be, they are milked twice a day and any problems can be identified very quickly),
  • the food miles involved (from them to us) are very low
  • there is no packaging – I take my own container
  • I can go to the farm and see the animals and judge the standard of welfare for myself and ask any questions I want.

In a supermarket I am relying on others to evaluate the ethics of the food I buy, so certification is useful. Buying direct I feel that I am making informed choices, so the label is no longer a key issue. And, in addition, the more we talk directly to producers, the more they hear what we, as consumers, want and the more we can encourage them (including by giving them our money) to implement the approaches that we would like to see.

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14 Comments

  1. Ann

     /  October 17, 2016

    It’s never easy, but this one looks like a win-win. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Well said! We haven’t gone for the ‘organic’ certification…. a. there is the cost, and b. we believe it automatically gives the perceived impression of being more expensive. And also to be honest, I think our standards are at times way higher than some of the certifying bodies.

    Reply
  3. I agree with you completely. Why must everything fit in one box. All neat and tidy. Life isn’t like that. I can’t say what is grown in my yard is organic but I don’t add chemicals of any kind to anything. So it’s good tasting and I’ll eat it. Besides, the markets raise the price on anything labeled organic. I know those that get certification have to pay for it. We should just do our homework and buy the best we can get from the most reputable people. Local is usually a better choice.

    Reply
    • Buying locally means you are much more likely to find out what a producer is like. I really like getting produce direct, but I like supporting smaller local shops too.And I so agree about doing our homework.

      Reply
  4. I’m really glad to see the cows are fed home-grown fodder and the calves are yarded on straw. I’m hoping they also muck their hay fields instead of using mineral fertilisers and getting rid of the manure. I hate seeing cows standing on concrete, all that valuable manure being washed down the drain instead of being soaked up by straw to use for fertiliser, and the animals fed on grain which they’re not designed to digest properly, instead of grass, hay or silage.

    Reply
    • Yes – a bit of feeding on concentrate to get them through the winter I think, but every effort to keep as much within the farm system as possible. I didn’t include a picture of the silage clamp as it’s not quite so photogenic as the rest!

      Reply
      • No, they tend not to be! I reckon they should have chooks on the pasture too, to increase fertility, but perhaps that’s a multi-culture too far for dairy farmers….

        Reply
  5. I am wrestling with the ethics of milk … which, like so much of food ethics, is complex, as you say. Living in a town, we get organic milk delivered by a Dairy Crest milkman, in returned & re-used glass bottles, which I think is probably the best balance of animal welfare, farming sustainability and packaging waste that’s readily available to us. But I know it’s not problem-free. DC recently closed their local depot, so now the milk comes in a diesel van from a town 15 miles away instead of an electric float from up the road, but that’s down to how hard it is for anyone to compete with the supermarkets. I’m not happy about the slaughter of male calves (and milked-out cows) as ‘waste’, and concerned about bovine methane emissions, as well as general concern about the welfare of the cows, but I like milk & cheese. It seems that the more I yearn for a simpler life, the more complicated it gets – but the simplicity that’s just going with the general thoughtless & destructive flow is not where I want to be … but probably so often am. Your lovely blog is a source of inspiration and hope – thank you!

    Reply
    • It is true that the more we investigate the more confusing he situation becomes. I am a big fan of local food, including animal production. In areas like wet Wales, there is precious little land that’s suitable for crops, so rearing livestock makes sense. I prefer local cow milk to, for example, imported almond milk which has high water demands but is grown in areas with scarce water, and requires significant packaging and transportation over long distances.
      Here we are amazingly lucky that we have lots of small local producers – people we can talk to. I’m pretty convinced that the further we are from our food producers, the less control we have. I’m quite happy to buy things from other countries, but if there is local produce that’s what I like to buy.
      I’m so glad you find inspiration here… sometimes I write a post and wonder if anyone will be interested, so it’s good to hear back 🙂

      Reply
  6. sarahfoto

     /  October 19, 2016

    I’m interested, keep writing! 🙂 I’d rather buy local produce than ecological from another country if I got to choose. I sometimes get the comment about my hens eggs -but are they ecological? My hens run around free everyday eating grass, worms and leftovers from our kitchen, at least I know happy hens have laid our eggs!

    Reply
  7. Kate Kirkwood

     /  October 30, 2016

    Hi there. I have recently started getting milk from a vending machine on a farm nearby, some months after cancelling my regular order from them because I always had too much or too little. It’s a small, regular dairy farm, trying to make ends meet and I want to support them. I do wonder sometimes though, if the cows aren’t organic and the milk is unpasturised, whether we are indirectly consuming antibiotics and irregular ingredients found in cow feed, etc.

    Reply
    • Perhaps you should have a chat with the farmer. Small farms don’t use antibiotics routinely as they can’t afford to, so it’s unlikely you are exposed to these, but why not ask? If farmers know the concerns of their customers, they are likely to think about the issues themselves.

      Reply
  8. It’s never simple, yet this one resembles a win-win.

    Reply

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