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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