Why choose organic produce?

by Farmer Liz
Up until recently I didn't really understand what organic meant.  I thought it had something to do with producing food without using chemicals, but I wasn't really clear on the details.  We are considering eventually going for certified organic status for our beef production at Cheslyn Rise, so I have now read the Australian Certified Organic Standard (available from BFA website here) and was surprised at the precise and complex definition of organic production.  I have read too many light magazine articles written by people who clearly have not read the standard and don't really understand organic production, but still think that they can compare organic produce to "conventional" produce and say that there is no real difference, so I think its time for me to explain that there is a huge and important difference, not just in the nutrition, but in the production system itself.

To achieve organic certification with BFA, primary producers must have an "organic management plan".  This plan includes details of how the farm will maintain and improve soil fertility and organic matter, water quality and biodiversity, and they even have to commit to fair treatment of employees, and they can't use any synthetic chemicals, including PVC.  Farms that raise livestock are expected to provide a decent quality of life, including access to natural foods (i.e. pasture for cattle) and animals are to be allowed to perform natural behaviours (i.e. caged chicken could not be certified organic under this system, even if they were fed organic grain).  Organic farming is not just about replacing chemical inputs with "organic inputs".  In fact, ongoing reliance on off-farm inputs is discouraged and farms are supposed to plan for self-sufficiency.  They can't just truck in loads of compost or manure, they have to plan to build the soil using the resources on the farm.

The environmental, social, animal welfare and sustainability performance of an organic farm is clearly much better than a conventional farm, but most uninformed articles, reviews and reports tend to focus on tests of the nutrition in vegetables produced by the two systems, which is completely superficial (for example).  It is possible that the mineral and vitamin content compare well, but what about pesticide and herbicide residue?  And what about taste, keeping ability, and other nutritious factors such as enzyme and flavanoid content?  Not to mention all the other positive aspects of organic production.

It really annoys me when people say they are eating less meat because its "bad for the environment".  If you buy certified organic meat, then you know it comes from a farm with an organic management plan, which tells you that it has to be working to improve the environment.  If you are genuinely worried about the impact of meat production on the environment, try to support organic producers instead of just reducing consumption of resource-intensive feed-lot meat (and do your body a favour at the same time).

Not all organic produce is "certified" and the standard was developed so that there was a consistent meaning of the term, so you know what you're paying for when you buy certified organic produce.  Now you know that if a product is marked as "certified organic" it is a good ethical choice as well as a good nutrition choice.  If the product is not certified organic, it is possible that the producer has decided not to go through the costly process of setting up an organic management plan and getting audited and certified, so its probably worth finding out more about their production system and deciding for yourself if you want to buy from them.  It is possible that they are good enough to be certified, but you need to do the work to find out for yourself, whereas if they are certified then you know that they conform to the standard already.

A producer that states they are "organic" must at least comply with the Australian Standard 6000, however there is no guarantee that they do.  The ACCC can investigate claims by producers and they can be prosecuted if they claim to be organic and are found not to comply with AS 6000.  A certified organic producer is a member of the BFA and audited annually, so that is a guarantee that the producer meets the Australian Organic Certified Standard and AS 6000.  Just to be confusing, AS 6000 also specifies that a producer must be certified and audited, so that means anyone claiming to be organic should also be certified, but unless you see the name of the certifying agency, you should be suspicious of these claims.

In a conventional farming system there is no guarantee of animal welfare, chemical use, environmental protection or soil fertility building, although some farmers may be trying very hard in one or more aspects.  I know its difficult sometimes, organic food can be expensive (due to the auditing process for certification) and sometimes you can't find a local source, but if I do have a choice, I try to buy organic (and grow organic!).  As for certification for our own farm, we are still thinking about it.... believe me, its a massive standard and process to go through and I really admire those who have achieved certification!  We might find it easier when we are living on the property and can really put some time into managing things the way we would like to.  In the meantime, I would be happy to discuss our management practices and ideas with buyers, and at the very least, we can say that the cattle are grass-fed and their health is managed using minerals and natural products where practical.

Does that help?  Or did I just confuse you?  Do you try to buy organic produce?

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