If you’d like to know more about what’s on your plate, read on
What organic means
The idea is the farm is like an organism. Each part including the farmer, to the insects on the land and the land itself, all work and interact together to create a whole. It comes across as a tad happy hippie, doesn’t it? But science has proven that small changes in soil, water or nutrients can have a dramatic effect on produce and consequently your health.
Organic farming use less artificial chemical fertilizers and pesticides (they’re allowed to use just seven out of 200 different types). Instead, organic farmers look to develop a healthy, fertile soil using crop rotation and growing a variety of foods. No drugs are used on the animals and the impact of the farming system on the wider environment and the conservation of wildlife and their natural habitats are taken into consideration.
Is it better for you?
Yes it is. Here come the facts: Higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants in organic food.
Organic milk is on average 50% higher in Vitamin E, 75% higher in beta carotene (which our bodies convert to Vitamin A) as well as being 70% higher in levels of omega 3 essential fatty acids.
Knowing that your fruit and vegetables aren’t sprayed with chemicals, especially if you have children, is very reassuring. Many pesticides found on fruit or vegetables can’t be washed off – these toxins are stored in our body’s fatty tissues and could potentially be carcinogenic. But don’t think that all organic produce is safe to eat just because it’s organic. Meat should smell fresh, vegetables should be firm and unblemished – and you should prepare it in the same way you would if it weren’t organic, so wash fruit, veg and meat thoroughly before cooking.
Only 3% of UK farms are organic so supermarkets have to import a lot of their produce from abroad. Producing organic food is also more costly to the farmer. To support organic farmers while getting a better price for your food, order your food from an organic delivery company. Try one of these: Abel & Cole (abel-cole.co.uk), Riverford Organic Vegetables (riverford.co.uk), Farmaround (farmaround.co.uk), Fresh Food (freshfood.co.uk), Organics Direct (organicsdirect.co.uk).
It’s also an environmentally friendly way to shop: the ‘road miles’ (transport distances) that can be attributed to some organic produce is more environmentally damaging than ‘air miles’. Sourcing local seasonal produce from within a 20km (12-mile) radius is ideal.
What genetically modified (GM) means
It means to modify a plant’s genetic make-up by the insertion of another gene to create hardier crops resistant to pests or herbicides. This in turn has been banded as the solution to the world food shortage.
Is it better for you?
We don’t know. GM-food doesn’t have to undergo human or animal testing so the implications are unknown. In theory, the notion that we are able to grow foodstuffs with more nutrients and greater resistance to disease, is great. In reality, however, we have no idea how these foods will affect the environment, other species nor our own body chemistry.
Following a public outcry in 1999 all supermarkets and many brands had removed GM ingredients from their foods. Yet they still skulk undetected in some products! Some GM crops are still used in animal feed because they are imported from abroad, so they’re still very much present in the food chain.
On 20 October 2006 the Government closes the public consultation on the introduction of commercially GM crops. The proposal is to allow a level of 0.9% GM contamination of conventional and organic food industry. They call this co-existence. After this date a decision will be made and if proposals are agreed then GM crops could be grown in the UK… Is this what you want? If you’d like to make your views heard, send an email to GMcoexistence@defra.gsi.gov.uk entitled “Consultation on proposals for managing the coexistence of GM, conventional and organic crops”.
GM food isn’t necessarily cheaper – the scientific research that goes into producing the new strain of crop is expensive and costs need to be covered. But if a strain is resistant to disease or pests then in theory fewer plants would fail and so the price could be dropped. In reality, it rarely works like that.
What free-range means
As the name would suggest poultry or animals are allowed to literally range free. To roam and feed without confinement, as opposed to the majority of commercially bred animals, which are caged.
Is it better for you?
The animals have access to outdoors so this has impact on the flavour and texture as well as fat content. According to recent research by the London Metropolitan University, cheap supermarket chicken often contains as much fat as a Big Mac because the intensive farming methods don’t allow the chickens to mature or exercise. Think about that next time you tuck into a ‘healthy’ roast chicken.
The impression given to the shopper is that free-range animals lead a happier life and death. This, however, is not always true. Let’s take free-range chickens as an example. Overcrowding on some farms is a big problem and the handling of the birds especially during transport and at slaughter can be just as rough as for the battery hen. To carry the free-range label, a bird has only to spend half its life with access to outside and the requirement is for the bird to have just one metre square. It’s not a huge amount of space and these EU regulations are often flagrantly ignored anyway. Look for the higher welfare standards, such as “traditional free range” or “free range – total freedom” on labels.
Free-range is cheaper than organic by about £5 less a kilo for chicken breasts. This is partly because organic farming is more expensive than other methods but also because customers are prepared to pay more. And often, you’re paying for a name, not quality. For example, M&S uses the same farm for its chicken as the Co-op and yet the prices are vastly different. Similarly, some ‘lower grade’ chicken may be just as nutritious as a high-priced ‘luxury’ version. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference fresh West Country free-range chicken, for example, has the same nutritional values as one from their basic range. Taste will vary, however.
Words by Pippa Hall