You’ve started buying organic because you want to make the healthiest, most environmentally conscious food choices.
Or you’ve heard about the overuse of antibiotics and hormones in the food chain and the dangers this could post to humans.
Or you’ve heard that over 2 million tonnes of glyphosate are used on British farms every year.
Or perhaps you’ve heard that organic food is free from GMOs and also more nutritious.
Maybe you’ve heard that livestock gets treated better when it’s organic.
And you’d be absolutely right. Buying organic is always worth the few extra pennies.
But how do you know if the organic food you see in the supermarket is actually organic? What about the foods imported from the EU and beyond?
Let’s take a look.
What is organic food?
The world ‘organic’ refers to food which has been produced without the use of artificial fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and with a minimal use of medicines such as antibiotics.
Instead, farmers use techniques such as crop rotation to make sure the soil is fertile and use both traditional and cutting-edge farming techniques to control weeds, pests and diseases naturally.
Occasionally, naturally derived, approved materials can be used, but only when absolutely necessary.
The Soil Association also define organic as, “a means of producing items that work with nature,” adding that the definition includes better animal welfare and more sustainable management of the land and natural environment.
Is organic food actually 100% organic and free from pesticides?
It might surprise you to know that the answer is, ‘Almost…’
Under current UK law, a food must be at least 95% organic to be labelled as organic.
This is excluding water and salt and refers to both wholefoods like strawberries and carrots as well as processed foods such as organic granola and yoghurts.
The situation is entirely different in the US where the 95% requirement for food products is the same but items that are not food aren’t as strictly regulated.
Additionally, products with at least 70% organic ingredients can use the phrase ‘made with organic ingredients’ which can be misleading.
We should also remember that some pesticides are permitted for use in organic products, provided that they come from the naturally derived pesticides approved by the certifying body.
Examples of natural pesticides include pyrethrin, which comes from chrysanthemum flower heads, and rotenone, which occurs in the seeds and stems of several plants including jicama.
How can you tell if a product is organic?
You can also check for the control body’s code number.
For products from the UK, the format will be GB-ORG-XX.
Additionally, manufacturers can list ingredients in non-organic food items as organic provided they meet the EU organic standards.
This must be labelled clearly, and the control body’s code number must also be displayed.
Remember that by law, no one can claim their product is organic if it isn’t certified as being organic.
This certification process takes a long time: between 1-3 years from start to finish, depending on what they’re producing.
During this time, the control body conducts several inspections to ensure that the producer is meeting these high standards.
This means that when you see the Soil Association logo or the EU organic symbol, you know that this is a product you can trust.
How can we be sure that imported food is really organic?
Imported food must follow the same rules and regulations as non-imported foods when it comes to labelling food as organic.
Food imported from the EU
Currently, foods imported from the EU member states must comply with exactly the same laws as the UK.
You can find out where your food is from by checking the label to see the country of origin and looking at the control body’s code number. Like the UK, they use the format AB-CDE-999 on their label, including a 3-letter code such as ‘bio’, ‘öko’ or ‘eko’.
Food imported from outside the EU
The EU have recently introduced new regulations which allows fairer opportunities to producers from non-EU countries.
This allows them to label as organic if they comply with the same rules as EU producers by registering with an organic control body and achieving certification.
What will happen with organic food regulations after Brexit?
No one is entirely sure what will happen with organic food regulations in the UK after Brexit.
According to the Soil Association, a no-deal Brexit would mean that the UK organic certification system would no longer be recognised in the EU, so UK certifiers would have to apply to the EC for individual approval before organic food could be exported to the EU.
The opposite won’t necessarily be true—we can continue to trust imports of organic food from the EU member states and beyond.
So, whilst we can’t guarantee that organic food is exactly 100% organic, we do know that the tight regulations across the UK and Europe mean that when we see the words ‘organic’, we are getting something that is at least 95% organic.
Either way, organic is the better choice for your family’s health, animal welfare and the planet.
Charlotte Witts is a writer and entrepreneur who wants to show you how easy it is to live a more conscious, zero-waste lifestyle. A confirmed yoga-addict, trail runner and ocean-lover, she currently lives in the Azores where she enjoys the simple pleasures in life.