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Making informed an choice on organic food

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Context - Demand for organic food is growing.

How is it regulated in Europe and what are the potential health and environmental benefits?

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2015 by European Commission (EC): " Organic food: Helping EU consumers make an informed choice" 

  • Source document:EC (2015)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts
Latest update: 27 December 2017


Demand for organic food is growing. A public consultation on organic agriculture highlighted the public's concerns with environmental and quality issues, and showed a clear demand for strengthened and more uniform organic rules (86%), and improved control systems (58%). The report provides answers to the questions on how is production and labelling regulated in Europe and what are the benefits expected from organic food for the environment and for health.

What is organic food?

The term 'organic' refers to an overall system of farm management and food production that aims at sustainable agriculture, high quality products and the use of processes that do not harm the environment, or human, plant or animal health and welfare.

Organically grown foods are not to be confused with foods sold as 'natural'. In the United States of America (USA) for example, the term 'organic' can be used for certified organic products, while the label 'all-natural' is a legally unregulated expression.

What are the benefits of organic food?

The substantial variability in the quality and design of studies that compare organic and conventional foodstuffs in terms of nutritional, human health and environmental aspects makes it virtually impossible to compare findings and is the main difficulty to providing a clear-cut answer to this question.

The general view is that while the sustainable nature of organic farming is accepted and relatively well understood, the health and nutritional benefits of organic products are still widely debated.

Studies show that organic foods have no significant difference in vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc and copper compared to conventional foods. By contrast, another study revealed 20% to 40% higher levels of antioxidants in organically grown crops, but it is still unclear whether antioxidants can improve human health.

The level of pesticide residues was found to be lower among organic produce but health and nutrition specialists stress that the endless debate on the benefits of organic produce is just a distraction from the real issue and more pressing concern at hand, which is that a majority of Europeans do not eat enough fruits and vegetables to reach the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) of around 400 g per day.

What are the environmental impacts of organic agricultural practices?

Soil-building techniques such as crop rotation, organic fertilisers use and greater biodiversity preserve and improve soil structure and water infiltration which, in turn, avoid erosion, reduce the risk of groundwater pollution, and preserve habitats for wildlife.

Management practices used by organic agriculture also increase the return of carbon to the soil, favouring carbon storage and raising productivity. Meanwhile, in terms of climate impact, the report found that organic milk, cereals and pork production generate higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per unit of output than the conventional alternative. However, consumers having a preference for organic food are more environmentally conscious and have more sustainable dietary habits, eat less meat and therefore contribute less to high land-consumption and GHG emissions.

A specific concern is that organic farming has lower yield. At current food consumption, Europe would need an additional million hectares of farmland if all production were to switch to organic agriculture. However, with good management practices and particular crop types and growing conditions, organic systems can substantially reduce the yield gap with non-organic management practices.

What are the rules on organic food in the EU?

The EU logo for certified organic food
The EU logo for certified organic food
Source: European Commission, 2015

In 2010, the EU introduced a logo that organic producers could use on their products.

In order for their products to be labelled as biological or “bio”, or “eco”, and use the EU organic logo, farmers, processors and traders must comply with EU requirements:

  • Organic plant production has to be obtained only from organic seeds and based on sustainable cultivation techniques; 
  • Fertilisers and pesticides may only be used if they have been authorised for use in organic production and a restricted list of additives and flavourings are authorised in organic production;  
  • The use of ionising radiation for the treatment of organic food or feed, is strictly forbidden; 
  • Foods may be labelled as 'organic' if at least 95% of their agricultural ingredients are organic;  
  • The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and products produced from or by GMOs (with the exception of veterinary medicinal products) is strictly forbidden; 
  • Chemically synthesised medicines including antibiotics may be used under strict conditions and only when the use of phyto-therapeutic or homeopathic products is inappropriate. Hormones or similar substances are only allowed as a veterinary therapeutic treatment in an individual animal; 
  • The strict rules on animal welfare in terms of space, air and light are respected. Tethering animals is not allowed unless it is essential for safety, welfare or veterinary reasons. Cloning and or transferring embryos is also forbidden.

The EU also regulates organic products from third countries that can be imported from non-EU countries whose rules on organic production and control are equivalent to those in the EU.

How pesticides are used and monitored in organic farming?

The use of a certain number of organic pesticides is allowed in EU organic farming, even if some argue that pesticides used in organic agriculture are not safer than synthetic ones. Organically produced food less frequently contain pesticide residues exceeding the limits compared to products produced conventionally (0.8% versus 2.7%).

Why are organic foods more expensive?

The cost of certified organic foods is generally higher than the price of their conventional counterparts. There are various reasons which account for this difference:

  1. Production costs for organic foods are typically higher because organic farming is more labour-intensive;
  2. Organic farming techniques reduce the frequency at which organic farmers can grow profitable crops;
  3. The crop losses in organic farming are also higher, which in turn, results in higher retail prices in part because organic and conventional produce must be separated during processing and transportation;
  4. The cost of organic foods comprises factors that are not reflected in the price of conventional foods; these factors include environmental protection and avoidance of future expenses to mitigate pollution, higher standards for animal welfare and reduction of health risk;
  5. Demand for organic food is growing, but supply is still limited and organic farms tend to produce less than conventional farms.

How much organic food is presently being produced?

The EU continues to be a forerunner in organic agriculture thanks to strong consumer demand, strict legal protection and support for organic production and labelling.

Worldwide, in 2013, organic farmland accounted for 1% of total farmland (over 43 million hectares in 170 countries). The largest single market for organic food is the USA (€24 billion) followed by the EU (€22 billion and 10 million ha or 5.7% of the EU's agricultural area in 2013) and China (€2.4 billion).

Over ¾ of the nearly 2 million organic producers are in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and this accounts for the imbalances in international trade of organic products, which is one of the most pressing issues facing their global trade. When, for example, organic products are exported from Asia to Europe and re-exported to Asian markets as finished organic products, this has not only a negative impact on their environmental footprint, but also inflates retail prices for consumers.

What is the role of eco-labels in the consumer attitude towards organic food?

Organic food means different things to different people. In the USA, for example, many consumers buy organics because they are perceived as healthier than conventional foods. In the EU, environmental concerns are the primary purchasing motive. In China, organic is expected to be high quality and safer. The use of (organic) pesticides and the possible presence of residues in organically grown crops also attract a lot of attention.

But the growing number of labels (currently over 200 worldwide) causes confusion among consumers and makes it difficult for them to distinguish organic logos from competing ones. In this context, the success of 'Fairtrade' products seems to reside in their clear and appealing message that their certified products guarantee a fair price to growers in developing countries.

Meanwhile, the increasing competition for shoppers and the recent market entry of retail discounters make analysts fear a price war seriously affecting organic farmers and food manufacturers.

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