With so much emphasis on buying local food, why should you pay more for organic food that may come from further afield? The price difference may seem a lot, but by buying organic food you are doing the best for your family by eliminating unnecessary chemicals, supporting high standards of animal welfare, while helping to protect the countryside at the same time.
Organic farmers have to stick to stringent rules regarding the manner in which they farm, from the way they treat the soil right through to the way in which an animal is slaughtered. When you buy organic food you know the whole food chain applies these standards. There are no fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers, no growth promoters or antibiotics, no GM soya. Organic food may not necessarily taste better, although it is likely that tasty traditional, slow growing breeds will have been selected. However, scientists have proved that organic milk and some organic vegetables have higher levels of beneficial compounds, such as antioxidants and omega-3 oils.
Organic methods influence every decision we make. For example, we calculate how much nitrogen our animals are adding to the soil. Each animal drops dung so they have to make sure stocking rates are such that nitrogen inputs are low. This protects the water quality of the stream that runs through our fields. It helps plant biodiversity too as high nitrogen levels encourage the more vigorous grasses which outcompete other species. We don’t spray fertilisers onto our cereal crops but rely on a crop rotation in which we grow clover that adds nitrogen to the soil naturally. We can’t spray weedkillers so there is no easy fix for problems such as docks and thistles, other than old-fashioned cutting them down and digging them up. We can’t use fungicides and insecticides like conventional arable farmers, so we rely on selecting varieties that have natural resistance and accept the fact that our yields will be considerably lower. We have thick hedgerows and wide margins around our arable fields where natural predators can thrive and carry out pest control for us.
The same applies to our livestock. Our stocking rates are low and the animals are rotated around the fields to avoid the build up of worms and other pests in the soil, as well as to give the grass a break. This means we don’t have to worm our animals. The geese and ducks are outside and come back into shelters or barns at night for safety against the fox. The pigs are outside too, rotated from pen to pen. Again we do not use routine wormers.
There are standards regarding animal feedstuffs. Virtually all of the ingredients in the food have to be organic. This makes it expensive, a tonne of organic wheat is almost double that of conventional wheat and pelleted food is even more. One of the most expensive elements is soya, the source of protein. Most soya comes from North and South America where GM soya is commonplace. Organic food has to be GM-free and of course this pushes the price up. The cheapest animal feeds on the market have no declaration regarding the GM content. So many conventional farmers may be unwittingly feeding their animals GM soya. GM technology is not all bad. Its used to good effect in the manufacture of many drugs and vaccines, but of course this is in the laboratory. I have grave reservations regarding the use of GM crops where we have no control over the transfer of the modified genes to other plants. I don’t want to support this form of agriculture and I want to eat GM-free foods. I know our crops and livestock are GM-free, as are all organic foods. They also free of pesticide residues.
There are smallholders and conventional farmers who say that they farm to similar standards and I believe them, I did myself when running a smallholding. However, the difference is certification. Can they prove it? Organic certification requires farms to keep records, lots of them and each year at the annual inspection they have to prove this. For a farmer who is not certified there is no proof. It is so easy to go into a feed supplier and choose to buy non-organic food or give wormers. Who would know?
As a child of the 60s I must have eaten food laced with chemicals. At the time, consumers had no choice. But we have all inherited the consequences of agricultural intensification and pesticide-abuse; hedgerows ripped out, seed-eating birds and birds of prey poisoned, soil laden with fertilisers, and polluted water. The current upsurge in cancer, especially breast cancer, may be another legacy. When I choose to eat organic food I know that every farmer in the food chain has applied the same standards as myself.