How to apply for Organic Certification in the UK - 60 second guide to... Organic food by BBC Green


Is organic food really healthier or just a con? We take a look behind the label

WHAT IS ORGANIC AGRICULTURE?

Organic agriculture is defined as a system of farming based on principles of human, animal and environmental health. At its core, organic farming is about avoiding the use of agro-chemicals to minimise damage to the environment and wildlife. The concept of organic has been around for more than half a century - Walter Northbourne coined the term in Look to the Land, published in 1940. During the early to mid 1990s, the organic market really took off in the UK. The global organic market is now worth more than £17 billion and supplied by more than 300,000 square km of certified agricultural land - an area roughly the size of Italy.

ORGANIC CERTIFICATION

All foods sold as organic must originate from farms, processors and importers that have been approved by an official certification body. In the case of processed foods, at least 95 per cent of the agricultural ingredients (ie excluding water and salt) must be certified organic.

The rest can be non-organic, though only in the case of certain approved ingredients. In the UK, there are ten organic certification bodies, each of which inspects farms and factories to ensure they meet EU standards. They can also choose to impose extra requirements of their own. The largest organic certification body in the UK is the Soil Association, which claims to have "the highest and most comprehensive standards for organic production and processing in the world". How do you get organic certification?

The complete list of minimum organic standards runs to more than a hundred pages. However, most of the regulations relate to these four areas:

* Fertilisers Most synthetic fertilisers are ruled out. Instead, the soil is kept fertile with manure and crop rotation (alternating regular crops with others planted specifically to add nutrients to the soil).

* Pesticides Most herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are prohibited. Instead, pests are controlled primarily by predatory insects, weeding and the co-planting of crops that deter each other's pests. A few non-synthetic pesticides are allowed as a last resort.

* Animal welfare Animals must have adequate space and access to free-range areas, and their feed must be organic. Minimum slaughter ages are specified and practices such as docking tails and cutting teeth are only allowed in certain circumstances.

* Additives Most colourings, preservatives and other additives - including aspartame, hydrogenated fat and monosodium glutamate - are prohibited. Only 36 additives are permitted, out of a total of at least 500. The Soil Association limits this further to 30.

Besides rules and regulations, organic bodies encourage producers to abide by wider principles relating to health, ecology, fairness and care.

THE PROS AND CONS OF ORGANIC:

A 2003 government review concluded that organic agriculture tends to bring environmental benefits by increasing farmland wildlife and soil quality while reducing energy use, carbon emissions, pesticide and nitrate pollution.

That's not to say that all organic food is inherently eco-friendly. For example, beef has a large carbon footprint no matter how it is farmed. And, like regular food, organic produce may be transported long distances or heavily packaged (For more information, read Sixty second guide to food miles). Organic systems often produce lower yields than conventional systems. People argue that widespread organic agriculture might increase the total area of farmland needed to feed the world. This in turn might encourage the clearing of rainforests.

HEALTH BENEFITS

Organic groups claim that organic food offers more nutrients and fewer pesticide residues. "More of the good stuff we need and less of the bad stuff that we don't need", as the Soil Association puts it.

A number of scientific studies have added weight to this view, though others have found no significant difference between organic and non-organic food. The Food Standards Agency warns that "to reach a robust conclusion it is necessary to evaluate the weight of evidence across a range of published papers. Care should be taken over reliance on single papers." Future research may clarify the question of health benefits. In the meantime, sales of organic products continue to rise steeply. In 2006 alone, UK sales were up by more than a fifth.

Written by Duncan Clark





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