Organic food is no longer a niche market.
Sales of organic food products in the European Union have more than doubled over the past decade – from € 16.3 billion in 2008 to € 37.4 billion in 2018 – and demand continues to grow .
However, many Europeans still do not know what “organic” really means. Is it natural? Without pesticides? Locally grown?
Well not exactly. Here are some of the conditions that food products must meet to be considered organic in the EU:
No synthetic fertilizer
Natural fertilizers, such as compost and seaweed derivatives, are essential for maintaining fertile and healthy soil. Organic foods should therefore be grown with these products, rather than with synthetic fertilizers used in conventional agriculture, which tend to have more aggressive chemical ingredients, including nitrogen compounds, phosphorus and potassium.
“Organic farming improves the structure and quality of soils and strengthens biodiversity. Studies have shown that organic farming has 30% more biodiversity in the fields, ”explains Elena Panichi, Head of Unit at DG Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI).
No synthetic pesticides
Farmers have to deal with weeds and pests. Organic farmers are only allowed to use pesticides of natural origin, made from plants, animals, microorganisms or minerals.
“These chemicals are of natural origin. For example, essential oils, plant extracts, which are listed in current regulations, and are authorized, according to a process that involves a scientific committee to assess the effect on the ‘environment,’ says Panichi.
Organic farms also have techniques such as rotating crops or planting different crops on the same piece of land, to help prevent soil-borne diseases.
Natural predators, such as ladybugs, can also be an effective method of pest control.
However, it’s important to remember that just because something is “natural” it doesn’t automatically make it harmless to people or the environment.
To be certified “organic”, food cannot contain products from genetically modified crops.
This rule is the same for organic meat and other farm products. In addition, animals must be raised with 100% organic feed.
Antibiotics as a last resort
The animals we eat or whose products we consume must be free from disease. Many conventional farmers regularly use antibiotics for disease prevention. These can eventually find their way up the food chain.
Excessive antibiotics are not good for humans or animals as they can help create superbugs. Antimicrobial resistance is a global concern. Each year around 33,000 people die in the EU from infections caused by bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
On organic farms, the use of antibiotics is severely restricted. Farmers control disease by limiting the number of animals they keep and using methods such as healthy nutrition for their livestock. They are only allowed to use antibiotics when absolutely necessary for the health of an animal, in order to avoid suffering, and when natural remedies such as herbal and homeopathic medicines are not effective.
“If in conventional [farming], sometimes antibiotics are given as a preventive measure, organically, antibiotics can be given as a last resort if there is no other means of intervening. Normally, the stricter animal welfare standards applied to organic products already keep animals in a healthier state of health that precludes the use of antibiotics, ”says Panichi.
However, studies have shown that the use of antibiotics on farms is declining. Sales of antibiotics for animals in the EU fell by more than 34% between 2011 and 2018.
Better animal welfare
Organic farmers must provide the necessary environmental conditions for animals to express their natural behavior, such as adequate outdoor space. This is not mandatory in conventional agriculture.
There are additional rules such as a ban on caging or mutilation unless it is absolutely necessary for health reasons.
What “organic” does not mean
China, Ukraine, Dominican Republic and Ecuador are the EU’s main trading partners for organic food imports.
Words like “natural”, “green” or “eco” on labels and packaging do not necessarily mean that a product is organic.
There is a wide range of organic products on supermarket shelves, from burgers to pizzas, from cheese to wine. The health consequences of consuming excess fat, salt or sugar don’t go away just because a food product is organic. Too much fat, salt, and sugar are always bad for you, whether organic or not.
How can you be sure that the “organic” foods you buy are really organic?
The most reliable way to know if a product is organic is if it bears this official EU logo.
The white sheet on a green background means that EU rules for production, processing, handling and distribution have been followed and the product contains at least 95% organic ingredients. This logo can only be used on products certified by an approved body or control body.
Some countries have also created their own organic logos. They are optional and complementary to the EU sheet. It’s French for example.
New rules coming in 2022
EU rules on organic production will soon change. In 2022, Europe will have legislation with stricter controls.
Panichi believes this will bring a “substantial improvement” to the organic sector.
“We have to keep in mind that the new organic legislation is not a revolution, but it is an evolution of organic legislation that has started in recent years and has continued to evolve with the sector.”
The new legislation will harmonize the rules for non-European and European producers. It will also simplify the procedures for small farms to attract new producers, thanks to a new group validation system.
The list of organic foods should grow, with the addition of products such as salt and cork. The possibility of certifying insects as organic is also provided for in the regulation.
What is the future of organic?
“Areas in Europe are increasing or as good as anywhere in the world, and they are increasing at a rapid rate,” says Panichi.
As part of its Farm To Fork strategy, the EU has committed to increasing organic production, with the target that 25% of all farmland will be used for organic farming by 2030. In 2019, it was only about 8%.
By 2030, Europe also aims to reduce the use of harmful chemicals and dangerous pesticides by 50%.
Buying organic food is still too expensive for many. One of the main goals of Farm To Fork is to make healthy and sustainable food more accessible and affordable for all Europeans. A 2019 Frenchman shows that a basket of eight organic fruits and eight vegetables is on average twice as expensive as a basket of non-organic products.
Note: The requirements listed in this article are just a few of the conditions necessary for a product to be considered organic. If you would like to know more about what is needed to get the green logo, please see the EU regulation.