Q&A: Is the high cost of organic food worth it?

Labour intensive: Organic costs more for a range of reasons.
Labour intensive: Organic costs more for a range of reasons. 

Q: How many Australians are eating organic?

A: The most recent research (Australian Organic Market Report 2012) shows 65 per cent of Australians have bought organic in the past year (leading up to 2012) and more than 1 million Australians do so on a regular basis. The report shows more than one in 20 are regular shoppers of organics and almost two in three had bought organic over the year.

Q: Where is most organic food grown in Australia?

Organic farmers, such as Tim Wyatt, have rules on how they can control pests.
Organic farmers, such as Tim Wyatt, have rules on how they can control pests. Photo: Tegan Sadlier

A: Most is grown on the eastern seaboard in Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

Q: Is it best to buy organic or limit your food miles?

A: Where possible, it's best to buy organic and local, but it really depends on what priorities you put on the food you are buying and how you want it to be farmed and processed. For example, it's better for animal welfare, reduces your exposure to growth hormones and supports good land management practices to chose a certified organic steak over a locally produced one from a feedlot. We also recommend choosing a transported strawberry over one that's grown locally with lots of sprays and synthetic fertilisers that further adds to the many ''hidden miles'' in modern industrial foods. Organic production reduces the overall footprint of food production. It's about living within our ecological means, building soil carbon and reducing inputs that have heavy footprints such as petroleum-based fertilisers.

Whether you buy organic or local depends on your priorities.
Whether you buy organic or local depends on your priorities. Photo: Steve Baccon

Q: How can you justify the extra cost for organic foods?

A: Organic costs more for a range of reasons. Organic farming has different economies of scale and more labour costs - such as hand weeding over weedicides.

Q: How do you respond to evidence suggesting organic food is no more nutritious than non-organic food?

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A: Our research shows shoppers buy organic not for what's in it but for what's not in it. The nutritional value of conventional and organic foods is an area that requires more research, however there are so many other benefits of certified organic food. A recent RMIT study showed eating organic food for just one week dramatically reduces (by 90 per cent) your exposure to organophosphate pesticide residues.

RMIT's Professor Marc Cohen is involved in research that is attempting to answer the question, ''Is eating less poison healthier for you?'' Apparently, no research has yet addressed this. The official government stance appears to be ''no'', because the government considers that the levels you are now eating are not ''unhealthy''. Until there is data to help you make a decision, Professor Cohen suggests you employ the precautionary principle and minimise your pesticide exposure through the consumption of organic food.

Q: What is the organic standard for raising meat and poultry?

A: Synthetic chemicals are prohibited from all certified organic farms. In summary, animals must be free-ranging and be able to behave socially - no cages, stalls and feedlots. Live export is not permitted, animals must have access to pasture at all times, synthetic growth hormones are not permitted and animals must be fed certified organic feed (no GM, no sprays). Also, routine antibiotics are prohibited, vaccine use is limited and farmers must use natural breeding methods and stress-free weaning that allows for the ethological needs of mothers. Electric prodders are not permitted as a routine management method and farmers need to show that they are maintaining and encouraging biodiversity on their property.

Q: Are pesticides permitted in the growing of organic food?

A: Synthetic pesticides and agricultural chemicals (including synthetic fertilisers) aren't permitted for use on farms. Organic farming is about increasing the health of soils and therefore grows healthy and more resilient plants and animals (and reduces reliance on sprays - natural or otherwise). For this reason, some organic farmers don't have the same pesticide problems as conventional growers. They aim to balance their farming environment to prevent pest attacks by other, more natural, means. As a last resort, there are occasions when organic farmers will need to protect their crops from pests and weeds. There is a very restricted list of naturally occurring products such as oils and pyrethrum and biological agents such as Bacillus thuringiensis, that are permitted. Organic farms are about health management of crops and livestock and prevention being far better than the cure.

Q: How much organic food grown in Australia is exported?

A: There's not a lot of organic food exported from Australia due to domestic demand. However, the realities of farming and doing business in a low-populated country such as Australia is that growers and manufacturers have to spread their market risks. The inherent qualities of certified organic food outweighs the negatives of food miles; it's much better to be growing, supplying and exporting ethically grown produce than not. Organic farming systems are about recycling energy and returning carbon back to the soil. These benefits are considered to be a critical part of long-term agricultural sustainability.

Q: Critics of the organics industry say it has strayed too far from its roots. What is at the heart of the modern-day movement?

A: It's about growing, processing and manufacturing food in a way that cares for the environment, animals and people. The organic standards are the highest and hardest agricultural and food standards in the world, with a ban on synthetic chemistries, no use of GMOs, and requirements for building soil carbon where it counts. These are the principles upon which the movement was based and they are chiselled into the production and marketing standards that we certify to this day.

Q: Why should people eat organic?

A: Because it's real food, grown with care for the environment, animals and people. Buying organic reduces your exposure to chemical residues. Looking for a certification logo such as Australian Certified Organic means you don't have to look for lots of other claims. Certified organic means it's pasture-fed, socially responsible, free range, biodiversity friendly, GM-free and grown free from synthetic pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibiotics. One logo says it all. Products carrying the Australian Certified Organic logo are audited each year to make sure they comply with an industry-agreed set of standards.