Shopping Organic: The Soil Association Answers Your Questions

During Organic Fortnight I’ve been investigating whether organic food is really more expensive than non-organic and if it’s better quality. This week the Soil Association, which champions organic produce, has been kind enough to answer some of the questions we’ve been asking about what organic means and the pricing issue:

Some consumers feel organic has become a ‘fashion label’. What does ‘organic’ mean and what are its benefits? Organic food is produced from natural, sustainable farming systems which avoid pesticides and prohibit artificial fertilisers and GM technology. Around 31,000 tonnes of chemicals are used in UK farming each year to kill weeds and pests. In organic farming, natural methods are used to control pests, weeds and disease, such as developing good soil and healthy crops, with natural disease resistance and well-designed crop rotations.

Organic farming releases fewer greenhouse gases by avoiding artificial fertilisers. 30% of our carbon footprint is related to food and drink consumption – so choosing organic, local and seasonal food is greener. Buying organic will benefit our health and the planet’s health. Not only is organic food rated best for animal welfare by Compassion in World Farming, research shows it is mainly artificial fertilisers that depress nutrients in fruit and vegetables. In processed organic food, artificial colourings and additives – such as aspartame, MSG and hydrogenated fats – are banned. See our top five reasons to choose organic.

How does the Soil Association support new organic farms and businesses? We are dedicated to helping farmers, growers, primary processors and the wider organic sector – including vets, advisors and consultants. We wrote some of the world’s first organic standards, long before the EU organic regulations were drafted. We provide businesses with technical advice and support and represent members’ interests in all major agricultural, environmental and food industry forums. We support producers through the application process and, once certified, a dedicated certification officer helps manage their organic licence. Surplus income from certification is gift-aided to the Soil Association Charity to raise awareness, develop and safeguard the entire organic sector. The charity lobbies government, campaigns and sponsors research.

Why are some organic products more expensive than non-organic ones? How can you justify this in an economic downturn? Contrary to popular belief, you can eat an organic diet on a budget if you’re willing to get creative and rethink your shopping list – which we think is more fun anyway! Sign up to an organic vegetable box, eat less meat, buy dried goods in bulk, make a shopping list to avoid waste, cook in bulk and from scratch and then freeze meals in batches. Where organic is more expensive, you get what you pay for. Organic farms have 50% more wildlife, support more and better farming jobs, and cause less pollution. Organic farming differs from conventional farming in that it’s not as much about efficiency in terms of numbers as it is about quality and attention to detail. Because of the extra attention given to the soil, production is not as fast as in non-organic farming and so sometimes the cost can be slightly more.

If you can’t go fully organic, prioritise foods you eat frequently, e.g. milk and yoghurt. Tea, coffee, cocoa and bananas are all crops that may be heavily sprayed, contaminating the environment and harming plantation workers. Switch to organic, fairtrade versions if you can and reduce your meat consumption. Producing a meat-based diet requires seven times more land than a plant-based one! Read our tips for going organic on a budget.

Does this price differential go to the organic producers or are retailers marking up the price of organic goods to appeal to ‘well-heeled’ customers?  Bigger retailers can charge a premium. Avoid this by buying directly from the producer through farmers markets, box schemes and farm shops.

Isn’t local produce more important than organic? Whilst buying locally is great, it’s not a guarantee of quality. An intensive farm or battery reared hens are ‘local’ to some people! Buy local and organic if you can. Organic, seasonal, locally produced food will be fresher than anything in the supermarket. Because many nutrients break down with time, local and seasonal food is often more nutritious too. But unless it’s organic, it may have been grown with pesticides and on farms that are a disaster for wildlife and animal welfare.

Organic produce has a reputation of only being within the grasp of rich people. What are the Soil Association doing to give ordinary consumers access to organic food? Good food should be accessible to everyone. The Soil Association, which was founded by, amongst others, those campaigning for social justice and improved public health, believes access to organic produce should not be a privilege for the few. Quite often organic is cheaper than branded items, and where it is slightly more costly, you are getting value added in terms of benefits to the environment, health and communities.

As a percentage of what we earn, we now spend less on food than ever before, while diet-related health problems are increasing. And then there’s climate change. Food and farming is responsible for around one fifth of the UK’s emissions – as much as all of our transport, or domestic power.

Communities are suffering due to a basic lack of food access, education or other factors and we are working hard to change this through our Food for Life Partnership, Community Supported Agriculture Schemes, and the Open Farm Network. All of these reconnect people with how food is produced, fostering good food culture around strong communities.

If we are serious about tackling climate change, we need to get serious about supporting organic and sustainable agriculture. We must produce more sustainably and, as consumers, we must vote with our knives and forks.

Have the Soil Association’s arguments persuaded you to shop organic? Leave a message and let me know. I’m taking a break now for two weeks and will return in October. See you then! Piper xxx

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5 Responses to Shopping Organic: The Soil Association Answers Your Questions

  1. Christine says:

    If I could be directed to a supply of competitively priced pulses and beans we might be talking. The ethics are fine, the cost locally is well out of hand. Fruit and vegetables I can do most of myself.

  2. Bill says:

    They certainly talk the talk, but both the public, as also the agricultural industry need some hard action, not words. British agriculture has not been sustainable fers so many decades, & more extremely expensive Red Tape will not rectify this!

  3. Kerri says:

    They certainly give food for thought (sorry no pun intended!) but I would still be interested to know how much of my usual shop I could purchase organic, and how much it would cost (like your experiment Piper) – even with some adaptions as suggested. Surely there must be some middle ground between the Soil Assoc and the Organic camp and the non-Organinc camp where less harmful methods can be used to farm without the steep price of 100% organic?

  4. Bill says:

    Kerri darling,"organic" is wide open to every possible scam, by both producers & retailers, also everyone between these two. It is backed by all corporate business, including all banks & other Public Corporations, also the church, & civil service, including They are all so corrupt.

  5. Bill says:

    Genuine "Free-Range" & other Natural agriculture is the only real way forward twixt Organic & Factory Farming. This is now illegal, since the largest part of agriculture is down to "permanent" pasture, which outlaws any form of arable or rotation cropping in modern UK. not only insist on building totaly un-affordable homes on most Green Belt, but see the remainig Green Belt as a rich man\’s playground, not as the essential/vital food & drink supply of UK.

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