In the last century, the global population has skyrocketed, leaping from just under 2 billion people in 1920 to nearly 7.8 billion today. Demand for food has never been higher. We need more, we want more, and we like supplies to be plentiful. As a result, agriculture and farming methods have become increasingly industrialised over the years. The process of growing fruits and vegetables is now more technical than ever before, with chemicals and genetic modifications among the many methods used to grow foods faster and improve the quality, quantity, appearance and shelf life of produce. Animal farming has seen a similar transformation, with mass production now the norm.
We’ve found new ways to meet our growing needs. Unfortunately for us, some of these methods can be harmful not only to our health but also to the environment.
The good news is that there is an alternative. First made popular in Australia in the early 20thcentury, organic farming was developed to provide a natural antidote to the over-industrialisation of agriculture that dominated the last century.
Other countries soon followed suit, and as the movement gained momentum, federations were created to define national standards for organic produce. Organic-labelled products started popping up in grocery shops around the world, and in 1972, a global umbrella organisation was set up to regulate the industry and establish uniform practices. Named the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM), the organisation’s remit now spans more than 120 countries. (1)
With regard to fruits and vegetables, organic agriculture is defined as “an integrated farming system that strives for sustainability, the enhancement of soil fertility and biological diversity whilst, with rare exceptions, prohibiting synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic fertilisers, genetically modified organisms, and growth hormones.” (2) In practical terms, this means that only natural methods are used to improve the quality and productivity of organic agriculture and farming. Organic farmers use techniques such as compost manure, green manure and bone meal to increase production and fertilise the soil, and rotation and companion planting to keep the soil rich in nutrients. Pest control methods such as mixed cropping or fostering certain insect predators are also preferred over chemicals that could be dangerous for our health and the environment.
When it comes to animal products, organic farming adheres to a number of different standards, such as only feeding the animals organic food and not treating them with any medication or hormones that could potentially be passed into the final consumption-ready product. Organic animal products are also free of chemicals and preservatives, and strict standards are followed regarding how the animals are treated while alive.
The standards followed for each food are listed on their labels, however with so many different phrases flying around, things can, at times, get a little confusing. Here’s an explanation of some of the common terms you might come across on meat products …
· Cage free: Used for poultry products, this label means that the animal didn’t live in a cage. It doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the animal was able to go outside.
· Free range: This means that the animal spent some time outdoors, although the label may not specify how much time or the nature of the outdoor environment.
· Grass fed: A term that relates to cattle, grass fed means that the animal only ate grass and didn’t eat any grains. Studies seem to show that grass-fed meat is better for our health, as it’s rich in conjugated linoleic acid, which has been proven to provide protection against cardiovascular diseases and to boost immunity. It’s also rich in vitamin K2, which helps regulate both blood coagulation and calcium metabolism. Some studies even suggest it has a better taste than non-grass-fed meat!
· Organic: For a meat product to be labelled organic, the wellbeing of the animal it came from is paramount. The definition requires specific conditions to have been met, such as the type of flooring, the amount of time the animal spent outdoors and various other wellbeing-related aspects. The label doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal was grass fed, however, as organic grains are sufficient to meet the feeding criteria. Interestingly, studies show that the way an animal is treated has a direct effect on the quality of its meat, but more on that later …
When it comes to fish, products are usually said to be organic if the animal grew in its natural habitat, in which case it is considered “wild”. In theory, wild fish meat contains no pesticides, chemicals or genetically modified organisms. Some fish products labelled as organic come from organic farms, where strict controls are applied to water quality and feed. Organic fish don’t eat artificial feed, therefore they grow more slowly than fish in non-organic aquaculture. (3)
3. Organic aquaculture: the future of expanding niche markets Expert Panel Review 4.3. Mark Prein1 (*), Stefan Bergleiter2, Marcus Ballauf3, Deborah Brister4, Matthias Halwart5, Kritsada Hongrat6, Jens Kahle7, Tobias Lasner8, Audun Lem9, Omri Lev10, Catherine Morrison11, Ziad Shehadeh12, Andreas Stamer13 and Alexandre A. Wainberg14 , www.fao.org/3/i2734e/i2734e04c.pdf