Page last updated at 17:58 GMT, Sunday, 24 January 2010

Just what does organic mean?

By James Melik
Business reporter, BBC World Service

Ask the average shopper what they think when they walk into a supermarket and see organic food on display, and the majority respond with two observations: expensive - and chemical free.

Organic produce
Some supermarket staff were unable to correctly explain what organic means

On the first point they are correct. Organic items can cost between 10% and 100% more than food grown under conventional conditions.

But on the second point people are mistaken, as foods certified as organic can be grown with the use of chemicals - albeit from a list approved by various organisations across Europe and the UK.

The confusion is understandable.

On a recent visit to branches of major supermarkets, members of staff told me that organic food did not use any fertilisers or pesticides at all.

One said the organic label meant food had not been genetically modified.

Only one gave the correct information, saying organic food is grown with "less chemicals".

I'm shocked to find out that any pesticides are used in organic foods
Mother-of-two Julie D'Wan

Even a spokesperson for the Soil Association said organic food meant "without pesticides", before amending that to "a minimal amount".

Mixed messages

There is no deliberate ploy to bamboozle consumers, but some feel cheated because they say they should be better informed.

"I'm shocked to find out that any pesticides are used in organic foods," says mother-of-two Julie D'Wan, while browsing in the fruit and vegetables aisle of a major supermarket.

Tomatoes on market stall
Myth: There are no pesticides, insecticides, fertilisers or additives in organic food.
Fact: There is a list of approved products which organic farmers can use. Up to 20% of chicken feed and 10% of cow feed can be non-organic
Myth: Organic food is produced locally
Fact: The UK is Europe's biggest consumer of organic food - but only 5% is grown in the UK. Some of it is transported thousands of miles
Myth: It is healthier for you
Fact The British Nutrition Foundation says there is no scientific proof of any extra health benefits

"The public believe what the so-called experts tell us, when really they just fool us so they can make their money," she adds.

Mrs D'Wan says she would not feel duped if it said on the packaging, or in store, that certain chemicals were permitted and used.

But looking, for example, at a bag of organic potatoes in one of Britain's largest supermarkets, the labelling just states:

"Farmers work with nature, helping to maximise wildlife on their farms and growing flowers to discourage pests. Our produce meets the standards laid down by law in the EU and by the UK government."

A spokesman for the retailer says: "The vast majority of our organic produce is grown in the UK, and the rest is grown in Europe. All organic food is certified by the Soil Association."

But it is not easy for consumers to find out what those standards are, and what pesticides or additives are allowed.

The Soil Association's Jack Hunter says that detailed standards covering what farmers can and cannot do or use is available on its website.

"They get fairly technical however and may be a little impenetrable to most consumers, so we've also produced a Consumer Guide To Our Standards," he adds.

Although that guide explores the issues of organic farming, it does not actually list the approved products which can be used to grow organic produce.

Education of the issue and its benefits is a big challenge
Patrick Holden, founder and director of Soil Association

Likewise, looking through the European Union's guidelines about permissible substances in organic food, they can only be found embedded in various documents, rather than on an easily-understood list.

'Trust through transparency'

In the UK, it is the Soil Association which determines whether food can be certified as organic.

Founder and director Patrick Holden says standards may not be perfect, but organic farmers strive for the "best developed practices for the application of sustainable agriculture".

Nothing is black and white, there are many shades of grey
Huw Bowles

Organic Trade Board

He believes that issues such as the use of copper sulphate in organic farming to control potato blight - which has raised concerns about its potential impact on the environment - should be discussed openly.

"We should not be defensive about our deficiencies," he says. "Our only currency is trust through transparency."

And he says more needs to be done to improve public understanding.

"Education of the issue and its benefits is a big challenge," he says.

However, Huw Bowles at the Organic Trade Board says the message is complex enough without having to put additional information on packaging.

"People are already confused with terms such as local and free range," he says, "where the reality does not always match what is stated on the label."

"Nothing is black and white, there are many shades of grey. I am reluctant to over-complicate the issue," he adds.

Addressing public perception

Woman on her knees in a field tending shoots
Labour costs can be higher because of farming methods
Yields are usually lower
Organic feed for animals can be expensive
Smaller quantities and longer distances raise the costs of distribution and marketing
When demand is high and supply is low, the price goes up

Simon Laird of Angus Organics, which supplies organic produce to a leading supermarket, says that they use a copper sulphate to combat potato blight, but only in the quantities permitted by the Soil Association.

Riverford Organic Vegetables says the letter of organic 'law' means avoiding pesticides and chemicals, but founder Guy Watson says that if he uses any at all, it is in the region of 1% of what growers use in conventional farming methods.

Such a small percentage may reassure some, but Professor Vivian Moses of CropGen, which looks at crop production and biotechnology, disagrees.

He advocates the listing of permissible chemicals and additives on packaging.

"Consumers should be fully informed about what they are purchasing, especially when they are having to pay a higher price," he says.

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