Do you know that if you eat an average apple, you would be taking in more than 30 pesticides and antibiotics even after washing it? The reason is quite obvious. In a hurry for producing more and more crops to satisfy growing demand, producers have had to resort to using a mix of pesticides and fertilisers to control disease and insect attacks. This might be good news for their bank balances perhaps but not so that good for human health. In this perspective, the importance of food safety has surpassed the concept of food security which is a separate issue.
For Pakistanis, opting for organic food doesn’t mean that we are being fashionable or following Western fads; it mean that we’re going back to the basics. Organic food is not an alien concept for us. Our forefathers were all organic farmers and used natural fertilisers and natural methods of pest control. In modern times, organic farming entails the use of organically approved pesticides and fertilisers to maintain soil productivity and control pests. Organic farmers employ methods like crop rotation, green manuring, and use compost that is made by the farmers themselves.
Sales of organic food have increased more than six-fold worldwide in the last quarter of a century while organic production has just doubled during the same period. It mirrors that the demand for organically produced food continues to outpace its supply, depicting a widening demand supply gap. Although it is a challenge to cater the increasing needs of organic consumers but fulfilling the demand of these quality consumers can substantially strengthen the stakes of organic food producers in the global food market. This is a window of opportunity to agriculture economies like Pakistan who can earn billions in terms of foreign exchange through the export of organic food.
The demand supply gap
It is an objective fact that organic farming is as old as human civilization. However, the population explosion triggered in the last century has forced growers to concentrate on increased production by using synthetic nutrients such as pesticides, chemical treatments and fertilisers which leaves residual effects on the produce resulting in more health risks. Organic foods are described as organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products that come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilisers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionising radiation.
Modern farming has some immediate benefits in terms of yield enhancements, but its pollution potentials are fatal and long lasting. The late realisation of negative impacts on ecosystems, both aquatic and terrestrial, had ultimately forced stakeholders to again switch over to natural or organic farming. Global organic agriculture has increased by at least five times in terms of acreage during the last five years. This farming system is more prevalent in Oceania and Australia that makes up to 425 of global organic land and is equivalent to 10 million hectares. Almost half of the global turnover with organic products is in Europe and stands at 12 billion euros with a growth rate of 10 per cent. Similarly, organic sector in Canada is booming with one billion dollars a year in retail sales and a 25 per cent annual growth rate. An organised organic activity started in USA towards end of the previous century. The legislations and essential ingredients of the system are now very well defined and are put into practice. Health experts say that organic food is chemical-free. It isn’t grown from genetically-modified seeds (that cannot reproduce), nor is it drenched in chemical fertilisers and pesticides. They claim that consuming organic food protects us from the array of diseases and health conditions that are caused by eating contaminated food that accounts for much of what we eat today.
Organic foods are more expensive to grow than conventionally grown foods and that cost shows up as higher prices in the grocery store. The choice to add organic foods to your diet may cost a bit more, but for that price, you are buying the reassurance that you’re making healthy decisions for your own and your family’s health. Higher prices of organic food are due to the fact that organic farmers are getting a lower yield per acre due to non-use of pesticides and fertilisers.
Conventional farming vs organic farming
Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Farmers who grow organic produce and meat do not use conventional methods to fertilise, control weeds or prevent livestock diseases. For example, rather than using chemical weed killers, organic farmers may conduct more sophisticated crop rotations and spread mulch or manure to keep weeds at bay. However, the following chart illustrates the four fundamental differences between conventional and organic farming:
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification programme since 2002 that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards. These standards regulate how such foods are grown, handled and processed. The identification system called organic labeling has three main categories comprising “100% organic”, “Organic” and “Made with organic ingredients”. The labeling system introduces a recognised, easy and authentic identification method for consumers. Foods that are labeled as “100% Organic” must contain all organically grown ingredients except for added water and salt. Foods that are labeled as “Organic” need to contain at least 95 per cent of organic ingredients, except for added water and salt, plus they must not contain sulfites added as a preservative. Sulfites have been known to provoke allergies and asthma in some people. Up to five per cent of the ingredients may be non-organically produced. Labels that claim the product to be “Made with Organic Ingredients” need to contain at least 70 per cent organic ingredients, except for added water and salt. They must not contain added sulfites, and up to 30 per cent of the ingredients may be non-organically produced.
Food products made with less than 70 per cent organic ingredients may state which ingredients are organic, but they can not claim to be organic food products. The food item displays the USDA certified symbol which depicts that it has been produced and processed according to USDA standards. The seal is voluntary, but many organic producers use it.
It is essential to clarify here that “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable terms. You may see “natural” and other terms such as “all natural,” “free-range” or “hormone-free” on food labels. These descriptions must be truthful, but are not to be confused with the term “organic.” Only foods that are grown and processed according to USDA organic standards can be labeled as organic.
Economic prospects of organic food
The market continues to brightly shine on economic prospects of organic production, despite the recent economic slowdown. Although might benefit from tighter requirements for conservation practices and ethical animal stewardship, organic certification has proven to be a market success since its introduction in 2002. Given the potential public health and environmental benefits of sound organic practices, this is good news for organic producers and human health.
Organic farming will transform gradually as it is a knowledge-intensive phenomenon and it will take a lot of time for farmers to adapt to it. Commercially speaking, we also have to take into consideration that we live in a capitalist economy where profits are always the first priority.
If premium prices are a problem, then growing your own food is a good option for health conscious individuals. Even if you only have a small patch of land, this enables you to both have a healthy relationship with nature as well as produce food. You simply have to ask good gardeners to examine the suitability of the land and get started. Compost can also be made at home by utilising garden and kitchen waste material. There are various other options that you can learn and explore. It is important to take serious interest in food that you put on your plate because, after all, you are what you eat.