What does organic mean?
The word “organic” refers to the way agricultural products such as fruit, vegetables and grain, are grown and processed. Organic food production is based on a system of natural farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic, persistent pesticides or synthetic fertilisers and prohibits genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
For farmers, converting to organic is more than switching out similar products. It is about understanding the natural cycles of farm agroecosystems and how to use them to their advantage rather than control them. Certified organic products represent agricultural practices that promote biodiversity, minimise erosion and protect watersheds, create wildlife zones and habitats, encourage soil regeneration with natural alternatives to synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and so much more.
Organic produce is grown in an environmentally sustainable and responsible manner. Through learning more about natural processes and management practices, organic farmers become less reliant on artificial inputs and monoculture systems that currently dominate non-organic agriculture. Organic farmers provide you and your family with nutritious, safe and sustainable produce.
What is the difference between organic and non-organic produce?
An understanding of the fundamental way in which the organic industry deals with fruit and vegetable production is required to examine the difference between organic and non-organic produce.
Table 1. Production differences between non-organic and organic produce.
|How to grow produce?||Non-organic||Organic|
|Start with your seed||Seeds (that may be genetically modified) are treated with fungicide and planted into sterile soil that has been sprayed with pesticides prior to planting.||Non-GM seeds are planted into healthy, fertile soil. Cultivating the top layer prior to planting, or planting into a crimped cover crop, reduces weed pressure naturally.|
|Provide nutrients to allow plants to grow and mature||Synthetic fertilisers (mainly nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) are applied to soil. Synthetic nitrogen mines soil organic carbon and has a higher propensity for leaching into waterways and eutrophication.||Use of natural fertilisers (animal bi-products such as manure and compost), crop rotation, and cover crops to enhance soil quality, composition and fertility.|
|Weed management||Synthetic herbicides are applied multiple times per season with high chance of residues on the finished product.||Use of crop rotations, mulch, cover crops, natural oil-based pesticides applied in direct sunlight, complemented by animal, hand, or mechanical weeding.|
|Protect the crop from predation||Broad spectrum synthetic insecticides are used and kill all insects -herbivorous and beneficial.||Encouraging beneficial insects, physical barriers (nets), trap crops, crop rotations, natural plant extracts and physical or pheromone-based insect traps.|
|Protect the crop from disease||Synthetic fungicides kill all fungus on plant leaves, however may leave the plant more susceptible to reinfection, and are often used multiple times per season as a result.||Use of crop rotations, cover crops, plant genetics, timing and seasonality, planting density and natural fungicides that promote healthy fungal growth colonies rather than sanitising the plant.|
|Harvesting of the crop||For root vegetables (potatoes), plants may be killed with herbicides to facilitate harvest.Crops may be picked when they are unripe (green) and chemically ripened with ethylene.||Fruit and vegetables are allowed to naturally ripen on the plant before being picked.|
|Storage||Fruit and vegetables may be sprayed with antibiotics to prevent bacterial infections post-harvest.Fruit, such as apples, are waxed (gives them a shiny lustre) which prevents moisture loss.||Organic produce is stored in dry, low oxygen and low temperature environments to prevent post-harvest loss.|
Who is controlling the chemicals in non-organic food?
The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) are the overarching authority for agricultural and veterinary chemicals, with over 900 chemicals approved for use within Australia. This covers a range of synthetic pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides), fumigants, mycotoxins, anthelmintics, antibiotics, and other medications. Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ) have established Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) of these agricultural or veterinary (agvet) chemicals in the food you eat. MRLs are the highest amount of agvet chemical residues that are legally allowed in a food product.
Certified organic MRLs are 10% or less of that allowed within FSANZ. However, nearly all 900 products approved by APVMA are not allowed in organic production. Certified organic soil and produce is regularly tested to give consumers a healthy and nutritious product grown sustainably. For more about the health benefits of organic food, explore the Health Benefits of Organics page.
Organic food integrity
Although the basic principles of certified organic and organic may be similar, certified organic means so much more. For a food product to be labelled certified organic in Australia, it must have gone through a strict certification procedure including inspection and approval by an independent, third-party organic certification agency. These rigorous assessments ensure that the farm, manufacturer, and final product complies and adheres to relevant standards, such as the National Standard for Organic and Bio-dynamic Produce (required for export) or the Australian Certified Organic Standard (ACOS).
Certified organic food is safely grown and handled under a traceable system. Organic farms and food manufacturers in Australia are monitored under one of the strictest food regulatory programs in the world. Any person buying organic food endorsed with a certification mark such as the Australian Certified Organic ‘Bud’ logo (the most recognised organic mark by Australian shoppers1) can be assured their food has been handled with care, without the use of harsh synthetic chemicals or additives, from ‘paddock to plate’. Organic certification marks act as a guarantee that what you’re buying is completely organic – certified to meet some of the highest product standards in the world.
Currently, in Australia, there is no regulation for the term ‘organic’. Just because a product has been labelled ‘organic’ does not necessarily mean that it has been through the same rigorous assessment process as a certified organic equivalent. Due to the lack of domestic regulation in Australia, you might find products with as little as 2% organic ingredients making an organic claim on their labelling. That’s why the majority of organic buyers look for certification logos to check that a product is truly organic, and you should too!
While taste is certainly a matter of opinion, consumers sampling organic food are frequently heard expressing their delight at the full-tasting flavour. ‘Fresh’, ‘clean’, ‘rich in flavour’ and ‘tastes the way food used to taste’ are comments often used by those who choose to eat organic. As mentioned above, organic produce is allowed to fully ripen on the plant, often resulting in higher sugar content and better taste. This opinion is shared by an increasing number of high-profile chefs who often state that their primary reason (among others) for choosing organic is taste.
Farms, food manufacturers and food packaging companies are subject to an audit each year to ensure standards are being upheld. In addition, it can take up to three years before a producer can become ‘certified organic’. During this time, the land must be farmed free from synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. It can take farmers years to get their soil health back to levels that fully support crop growth during this conversion process. This may result in lower yields initially, for a similar amount of work, resulting in the higher prices of organic produce.
Organic fruit and vegetables may sometimes be grown further apart to minimise fungicide use, especially in wet climates. Depending on the soil health, spacing might also be increased to ensure adequate nutrition for each plant. This can result in a reduced yield per hectare, however, spacing is also a reflection of the lower artificial inputs used by organic producers.
Many vegetable growers practice crop rotations where legumes (nitrogen fixing plants like peas) may follow the cash crop (such as potatoes) to rebuild the soil heath and organic matter. This rotation, though extremely beneficial for the soil and sequestering carbon, may also result in no immediate income for the farmer, increasing the price of the following crop. Alternately, if farmers need to bring in additional nutrition, the equivalent price per kilogram of nitrogen is significantly higher for organic compost and manure compared to synthetic nitrogen fertiliser in Australia.
This is also the case for any crop protectants where sprays don’t have artificial binding agents and often don’t last as long. Combined with promoting beneficials and balancing the ecosystem, this may result in a higher percentage of crop loss compared to non-organic systems before finding a good balance. Organic fruit and vegetables may also experience higher post-harvest loss due to the lack of chemicals used to treat picked produce.
Lastly, organic producers need to certify each stage of production, with the certification fees flowing on to the consumer. Certified organic is a stamp of integrity designed to protect both consumers and genuine organic farmers and businesses from false claims.
Organic food production varies dependent on crop type. However, when you buy certified organic, you are purchasing produce that has been grown without synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and GMOs, in a farming system that is based on building and improving soil carbon and fertility. Always look for a certification mark such as the Australian Certified Organic Bud logo to ensure that the organic produce is certified.
The University of Melbourne, Euromonitor International, Mobium Group, NielsenIQ. Australian Organic Market Report 2021 (Australian Organic Limited, 2021). Available online: https://austorganic.com/industry/publications/market-report-2021