The term “organic” is used to refer to agricultural produce that does not involve the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, mineral fertilisers, genetically modified organisms or ionising radiation (this is radiation that can make food last longer but also changes its molecular structure). Organic fields are planted with a variety of crops instead of one plant type that always stays the same. This keeps the soil fertile – and promotes biodiversity. And in meat production, for example, the use of hormones is prohibited.
Organic means different things for different food groups. Here are a few examples: Meat does not usually contain antibiotics (unless an animal had to be treated with them due to illness). In the case of fish, spawning must not be induced by means of artificial hormones. Wine from organic cultivation contains less sulphites than conventional wine. And organic vegetables grow in the soil. This may sound obvious to you – but in fact more and more conventional vegetables are actually grown in greenhouses on rock wool, foam or coconut fibre.
For the most part, yes. In fact the labelling of organic products is protected by law: in Switzerland by the Swiss Federal Organic Framing Ordinance of 1997, in the EU by the EC Organic Farming Regulation. This means that the labels “organic” and “ecological” can only be used if the relevant requirements are met during production and processing, as well as during storage. This also applies to imported products.
In the case of imports, mislabelling can still occur: for example, apples from Chile or strawberries from Turkey may receive the EU’s organic seal of approval even though they have been treated with pesticides. This can happen in particular when the inspection bodies in the producing countries are not independent institutions but companies that are – paradoxically – financially dependent on the very farms they are supposed to be inspecting.
In EU countries , it is usually the state ministry of agriculture or the ministry of health thatchecks whether the organic regulations of the European Union are being complied with. In Switzerland, four independent inspection organisations are authorised by the federal government to keep a watchful eye. The inspectors check the plant protection and fertilisation journal, for instance, while in the case of animal husbandry they will look at the size of the stables and the animals’ condition. In processing plants, inspections focus on formulas, residues, freedom from genetic modification and packaging.
- Organic soils are not polluted by synthetic substances and mineral fertilisers.
- Since monocultures are avoided, the soil remains fertile for longer.
- More earthworms settle in the soil in organic fields.
- There is more humus formation.
- Both groundwater and surface water are less polluted by fertilisers and chemical pesticides – so the result is healthier drinking water.
- Plant diversity is significantly higher on organic fields than it is on conventional farms.
- Birds and insects that live on or near organic fields find more food due to the ban on conventional pesticides, so they’re much more likely to settle in such areas.
- Ecologically valuable sites such as flower meadows, hedges and dry stone walls are maintained, which also promotes biodiversity.
- Feeding organic cattle grass has a favourable effect on the animals’ metabolism, so they emit less methane.
- The avoidance of mineral fertilisers means that less greenhouse gases are produced, too.
- Organic soils can store more carbon, which benefits the climate.
- The increased use of local resources reduces overall CO2 emissions.
There are contradictory studies on the question of whether organic products contain more vitamins than conventional ones. However, organic fruit and vegetables really do seem to contain more antioxidants and organic meat and milk have more unsaturated fatty acids. And logically, it is healthier to eat meat that is produced without added hormones and antibiotics, and to consume fruit and vegetables that doesn’t contain chemical residues.
Even an organic farmer is allowed to “spray” their crops to protect them from pests and disease in certain cases – but in this case natural substances such as sulphur or plant oils are used for this purpose. For example, bitterwood extracts and coconut soap broths can be used against wasps, plant lice and spider mites, and clay can be used to prevent scab infestation of fruit. Often, attempts are made to protect the plants using mechanical means such as very fine-meshed nets. This essentially reduces negative impact on the environment, and any sprays used are normally biodegradable. Nonetheless, copper is used to protect organic vines from fungal attack, and this can also accumulate in the soil and harm earthworms and other microorganisms. In the case of certain natural remedies, it is generally important to bear in mind that they have a broader effect than just combating a specific pest and they can be detrimental to other insects, too.
Organic farming does a lot for our environment and our health overall. But there are other environmental and social aspects of sustainability when it comes to food: for example, whether products are fair trade, how they are packaged and how they are transported (as well as how far). These dimensions can overlap with organic, but don't necessarily. So it is still true to say that it’s even better for the environment if you buy seasonal and local products.