What does it mean to go organic?

While shopping at your local supermarket, you’ve probably noticed a few products with the label “organic.” But what is the difference between organic and non-organic foods, vegetables and animal products? Is there actually a difference and is it worth spending your money on? We take a look.

So what does organic mean?

Organic farming is mainly about farming in a way that keeps the soil healthy. Different farmers will use different techniques in order to improve their soil. This can include avoiding the use of man-made fertilisers, growth regulators, pesticides and livestock feed additives. Instead, some farming systems may rely on animal and plant manures, crop rotation, biological pest control and hand weeding. This can also include steering clear of irradiation and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – or products produced from or by GMOs.

How do you get the organic label?

In order for foods to be labelled organic, at least 95% of the ingredients must come from organically produced plants or animals. Basically, only foods that are grown and processed according to organic standards can be labelled as organic. However, South Africa still hasn’t
adopted its own formal organic standards.

This means that local organic producers have to go through international certificate processes, which is expensive and troublesome. It also excludes small-scale producers and has put a dent in organic cultivation, which has declined over the years.

What if you want to shop for organic foods?

Even though it’s a lot tougher for organic farmers to get certified, this doesn’t mean that organic foods are hard to find. Most supermarkets will have aisles that are shelved specifically with organic foods. They will also have labels or stickers on them that clearly show that the content is organic. You can also get your hands on organic foods at the local farmer’s markets, which you can find across South Africa.

But is it actually worth it go organic?

There are some studies that say organic foods have more vitamins, minerals and omega-3s. However, these levels were found to be only slightly higher than those found in conventional foods. Organic food is also more expensive than intensively-farmed food. This isn’t because it’s better, but rather because the supply is limited compared to the demand.

Production costs are also higher because of the greater labour inputs that are used as compared to the outputs. So while it may be more expensive, this doesn’t actually mean that it is better than non-organic foods or that it is better for the environment.

When it comes to conventional farming most people have a tendency to vilify GMOs, when some of them can actually help to cut the use of pesticides. And while organic farming tends to have positive impacts on the environment per unit of area, this isn’t necessarily the case per product unit. So per vegetable unit, for example, that is produced the higher the acidification and eutrophication potential.

It is up to you to determine whether or not organic products are actually worth it. While they differ in the way that they are farmed, the resulting products may not differ as much as people think. So next time you’re doing your shopping, make sure you do some research before going to the organic aisle.

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