Tuesday, 26 September 2017

When Organic food may not be the best choice

"Buy Organic and save the Planet" could well be the logo of a company selling organic products and in many ways it rings true.  With a world of only organic agriculture we could be rid of so many harmful chemicals that kill more than the pests and weeds they are designed to wipe out.  We would say goodbye to genetically modified crops and the world's soil would be in a much better state.  But is organic always the right choice?  Are there actually times when you would be better off not choosing the organic option?  Was this "Simply Good and Organic" muesli I bought really a good environmental choice?

When organic may not be the best choice

When organic foods are plastic wrapped

We all know how bad plastic is for the environment with trillions of particles of microplastic now polluting the planet so should you really be adding to that load even if the product inside the plastic wrapping is organic?

When organic foods are flown in from afar

It is a conundrum that I suspect many a person who aims to buy organic will have grappled with.  Is it better to buy an organic product that was grown on the other side of the world and no doubt flown in or buy a local non-organic one?  Which neatly leads on to ...

When organic foods are not seasonal

It goes without saying that if the produce you are buying is not is season ie tomatoes in winter then it will either have been flown from far away or grown in vast heated greenhouses in somewhere like Spain.  The article below from Eco Watch exposes the extent of the spread of greenhouses in Spain and you can be sure that some will be growing your organic foods:

Greenhouses cover every square inch of land, more than 165 square miles of land around Almeria, Spain. Image from EcoWatch

When organic foods are heavily processed

Once you start processing food you start adding all sorts of unknowns to it.  Are all the ingredients necessary and what effects do they have on you?  Are they all organic, how much energy is needed to process the food, how much packaging does it now come in and how far (food miles) have all the ingredients contained in it travelled?  These are all unknown and could all reduce how environmentally friendly the food is.  And what about ...

When organic foods are contain palm oil  

We all know the devastating effects palm oil plantations are having on the rain forests of Asia and South America and the animals and plants that used to live there.  Manufacturers may say their palm oil is sustainable (what exactly does that mean anyway?) but the production of all palm oil goes far beyond just destroying habitats.  The working conditions of those harvesting and processing the crops is often extremely poor with no health care in place and workers are paid very low wages.  For the consumer, palm oil is far from a healthy product being high in saturated fats.  So why do organic producers even use it in their products?  Simply because it is the cheapest fat currently available.  For more details on palm oil have a read of these articles:

Not all organic standards are the same for all countries

Quote from Wikipedia on international organic standards:

"In some countries, organic standards are formulated and overseen by the government. The United States, the European Union, Canada and Japan have comprehensive organic legislation, and the term "organic" may be used only by certified producers. Being able to put the word "organic" on a food product is a valuable marketing advantage in today's consumer market, but does not guarantee the product is legitimately organic. Certification is intended to protect consumers from misuse of the term, and make buying organics easy. However, the organic labelling made possible by certification itself usually requires explanation. In countries without organic laws, government guidelines may or may not exist, while certification is handled by non-profit organizations and private companies."
So it is quite possible the so called organic product you are buying is not quite as organic as you thought.

When you drive miles just to buy a few organic items

If you are lucky enough to have organic produce close to you that is great but is it really a good idea to drive miles to get your organic foods, thus further polluting the environment? 

Do you really need it?

Finally, do you really need that food or are you buying it because it is organic and so you feel you are helping the planet and keeping yourself healthy in the process?  Have you been sucked in by some clever advertising but bought something that you either didn't need or could just have easily made yourself without the wrapping, industrial processing, unknown extra ingredients, food miles etc etc?  How much organic food still gets wasted because consumers buy more than they need?

So what of that packet of muesli?  I bought it as I needed something I knew my boys would eat for breakfast when they have to leave so early to get to school.  I normally make something they like but knew on this occasion I was short of time.  So I ended up buying muesli that contained processed (air dried) fruits, palm oil and glucose syrup, which came in a plastic bag and had ingredients in it from who knows where.  In my opinion, I do not think that constitutes a product that should be called "Simply Good and Organic."

You might think from reading this post that I am anti organic and that is simply not true.  I am, however, against organic food when a non organic alternative might have less of a negative impact on our environment.  Yes, buy organic but be careful in your choice.  Manufacturers want us to buy their products and they are not averse to a bit of greenwash.  Let's not fall for this any more.  Where possible let's ...

  • Choose organic foods that are free from packaging 
  • Choose local and in season organic foods
  • Choose non processed organic foods and cook from scratch yourself when you can
  • Avoid organic foods that contain palm oil
  • Learn more about organic standards
  • Consider buying fair trade products
  • Buy locally 
  • Buy what you need, not what manufacturers tell you you need!
Do you buy organic food - do you think you are 
always making the best choice? 

Postscript - after a comment about orgainc palm oil I have expanded on the subject in this blog post:

Why I will not buy organic food that contains palm oil


  1. Organic palm oil, all of the world's producers, grow in sustainably. Organic palm oil is the BEST choice among oils. Please do your research so that you are educated properly on this subject. Organic Palm oil is zero chemical input, pays farmers well and is ALL non-gmo. All palm oil is non-gmo. Responsible palm cultivation is a solution to feed the world.

  2. From the World Wildlife Fund - one of the many NGO's who are part of the Palm Oil Innovation Group - http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/agriculture/about_palm_oil/solutions/

  3. Thanks you Jana315 for commenting. I will reply to you but as this is proving to be a long comment, I will instead do so as a whole new blog post after this one.

  4. It drives me mad that most of the organic fresh produce in my local supermarket is heavily packaged in plastic, it seems even worse than non-organic in plastic. It really puts me off buying it. I also agree that it's crazy to buy organic from the other side of the world out of season as just about everything is wrong with that; the carbon footprint is enormous. But I wonder if many people buying organic are doing so to avoid eating pesticides, ie thinking of themselves rather than the planet, and therefore would rather buy plastic wrapped organic beans from Kenya than local non organic cabbage for example. Obviously it's a shortsighted and selfish strategy but I'm sure it's a prevalent one. As for me, I totally agree with you, I like to buy as local as possible and try and avoid Spanish fruit and veg.

    1. That is a really interesting point about people buying organic produce for their own health reasons rather than the greater good of the planet - I think I may need to canvas friends who buy organic to get find out their reasoning.

  5. Hi Rosie,
    Very good and interesting article! Sometimes it is really hard to know what is the best choose with food - organic is good but with the things your brought up in your article such as the packaging - it gives a whole new prospective to look at and consider. I still believe in buying local as much as possible and then you don't have to worry about all the packaging, where it comes from and what is really in it. Sharing on twitter, google and pinning. #GoingGreenLinky