Is it really worth paying extra for organic food?

The Scotsman
Joanna Blythman, October 25, 2006

FOR the concerned shopper, organic food was once considered ultimately safe - it did exactly what it said on its knobbly, muddy exterior, reassuring us it was free of artificial pesticides or fertilisers. But, as its popularity has burgeoned to a phenomenal extent, which foods and products are truly organic and worth paying higher prices for has become less clear. This is partly a result of loopholes in the Soil Association's otherwise stringent certification standards (still the strictest around) having been penetrated by opportunistic conventional producers keen to join the organic bandwagon.

It only serves to confuse a nation of shoppers already overwhelmed by choice and conflicting information about what's good for us and the environment. What organic products should we be buying? The answer is to consider all organic foods on a case-by-case basis. Some are worth sticking to your principles for, others bear little difference from the non-organic version - except in price.

In most supermarkets, organic beef is likely to come from Argentina, organic pork from Holland. Is it worth the food miles? Better to buy your meat by mail order from Scotland's organic producers - there are plenty online (see www.soilassociationscotland.org).

For fruit and vegetables that are both seasonal and local, order from an organic box scheme, and supplement it with conventionally grown British produce rather than imported organic versions. Truly organic fish is a contradiction in terms (see the shoppers' guide below), so I recommend you don't swallow it.

Do stock up on store-cupboard organic foods, which are affordable and widely available: buy cooking staples such as flour, sugar, cocoa, grains and pulses.

Organic processed foods (for example, baked beans and ready meals) offer convenience plus a baseline guarantee of no hydrogenated fats and next to no additives. They are not a bad compromise, but the best advice I can give is still to cook as much as you can from scratch.

With that in mind, here's a guide to purchasing decisions for organic-aware consumers, which should make your next weekly shop less of an ethical ordeal.

PORK
A REPORT by the Soil Association last year showed Tesco, Asda and Morrisons were importing "huge amounts" of pork from as far afield as Argentina. This year, Tesco's record has improved, with 74 per cent of its organic pork coming from the UK (compared with 58 per cent last year). According to the Elm Farm Organic Food Research group, non-Soil Association certified pork is probably imported from countries which adhere only to the EU baseline standards (or worse) and should be avoided. For instance, in some countries there is no requirement for organic, growing pigs to be free-range and they may have only a concrete run.

SHOPPING TIP: Waitrose and Sainsbury's source most of their organic pork from UK farmers; Morrisons and Asda take 30 per cent of their organic pork from UK farms.

PRICE: Organic: diced pork, 10.48 per kg; other: diced pork, 7.38 per kg.

CARROTS
ORGANIC carrots cost up to 285 per cent more than ordinary ones. Are they worth it?

In 2000, scientists at the Eclipse Scientific Group laboratory in Cambridge tested three types of carrot that they had bought anonymously from British supermarkets: organic carrots from Britain and abroad, and a conventionally grown carrot.

The tests, for more than 40 different pesticide residues associated with carrot production, were negative for all three.

SHOPPING TIP: According to the EWG research, only buy organic carrots if money is no object.

PRICE: Organic: 1.32 per kg; other: 76p per kg.

BREAD
THE US Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found that, although organic bread contains lower levels of contaminants, it offers limited additional health value as processing tends to wash away important nutrients.

The process of milling organic wholegrains into flour, for example, eliminates fibre and vitamins, though they are sometimes added back in. The more a food is processed, the less health value its organic version offers, especially in products such as cereals and pastas "made with organic ingredients".

SHOPPING TRIP: Read the list of ingredients carefully. "Wholemeal bread made from organic flour" might mean that while the flour is organic, the yeast and other ingredients are not.

PRICE: Organic: small wholemeal loaf, 52p; other: wholemeal, 48p.

MILK
IN 2001, a government report showed that traces of the toxic pesticide Lindane, a hormone disrupter, was found in 8 per cent of non-organic milk supplies across the UK. Organic milk comes from cows that graze on pastures not sprayed with synthetic chemical pesticides. They are given antibiotics only if they are ill. Earlier this year, research at Liverpool University revealed that organic milk contains 68 per cent more healthy omega-3 fatty acids .

SHOPPING TIP: Contact the Organic Milk Supplier Cooperative (01934 511 115) for approved stockists.

PRICE: Organic: two pints of semi-skimmed, 87p; other: two pints of fresh semi-skimmed, 64p.

BANANAS
ORGANIC bananas, mostly imported from the Caribbean, cost up to twice as much as others. According to studies, even though banana growers use up to 50 chemicals on them, multiple pesticide residues are rarely found on conventionally grown bananas, which are protected to some extent by the skin.

SHOPPING TIP: If you do buy organic, Fairtrade bananas are the best option.

PRICE: Organic: 1.39 per kg; other: 89p per kg.

SALMON
SOIL Association-certified organic salmon is produced in the UK and does not allow the routine use of chemical treatments. The feed of organic salmon is closer to the natural diet of wild salmon. But the fish are still kept in cages and their waste is not recycled. Even organic salmon farming reduces the biodiversity in the farmed area and the water around it by shutting out other water life.

SHOPPING TIP: Purists believe the nearest thing to truly organic salmon is wild-caught. In North America, no salmon has organic classification.

PRICE: Organic: 13.99 per kg; other: 9.99 per kg.

POTATOES
ALWAYS choose organic, because conventional potatoes carry high levels of pesticide residues. According to the Elm Farm Organic Food Research group: "Many organic potatoes sold in this country are grown in Israel, where standards are not as rigorous as our own and the farming methods are not sustainable."

SHOPPING TIP: Choose locally grown, organic potatoes rather than imported varieties. Of the supermarkets, the Co-op sources 100 per cent of its potatoes from British farmers.

PRICE: Organic: 1.30 per kg; other: 67p per kg.

CHICKEN
THE Soil Association says chicken farmers should limit capacity in their sheds to 500 birds, but it still certifies farms with as many as 1,000. It also allows mechanisation and chicks to be reared from non-organic broods. Beak trimming is permitted, but critics say this is only necessary when birds are under stress. Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Soil Association, concedes "poultry standards could probably go higher".

SHOPPING TIP: Very few organic chickens are Soil Association-certified. Look for Lloyd Maunder/Devonshire gold (sold in Sainsbury's, Somerfield, Morrisons) and Sheepdrove (Waitrose).

PRICE: Organic: 4.39 per kg; other: 2.14 per kg.

TOMATOES
ECONOMIST Dr Anna Ross says some EU-grown organic tomatoes are grown in soil which requires only a six-month conversion period to organic. In the UK, a conversion period of two years is required.

SHOPPING TIP: Buy locally grown organic produce.

PRICE: Organic: pack of six, 1.49; other: pack of six, 89p.

APPLES
ACCORDING to EWG research, we should always choose organic when buying apples as, even when washed, conventionally grown varieties contain traces of pesticides.

Yet, a report last year by the Soil Association showed that supermarkets insist organic produce be as unblemished as that grown by non-organic farmers. When marked fruit is rejected, it pushes up the cost. The Soil Association also found that less than 13 per cent of organic apples sold at Marks & Spencer, Co-op, Morrisons and Safeway were British, and none from Somerfield were.

SHOPPING TIP: Choose farm or specialist organic shops rather than supermarkets which charge a premium as high as 54 per cent for fruit, says Dr Ross.

PRICE: Organic: 2.19 per kg; other: British Cox, 1.18 per kg.

EGGS
ORGANIC labelling can be suspect when it comes to eggs, even though they are up to three times more expensive than battery-laid ones. Most birds destined to produce organic eggs spend up to 18 weeks being fed non-organic food in the same indoor conditions as hens destined for other uses. It is only after a transfer process of six weeks, during which the pullets are moved to a laying farm with outdoor access and are fed an organic diet, that the eggs can be classified as organic. Government regulations allow flocks of up to 12,000 birds with a density of nine birds per square metre to be described as organic, as long as there is outdoor grazing.

SHOPPING TIP: The only Soil Association-approved eggs sold in supermarkets are organic Colombian Blacktail eggs from Waitrose. Other varieties are available from independent outlets.

PRICE: Organic: 1.35 for six medium; other: 99p for six medium free-range.

BEEF AND LAMB
THE Soil Association says British organic beef is "in plentiful supply", yet supermarkets have cited shortages and are importing from Argentina and New Zealand, contradicting organic principles and racking up thousands of food miles. At Morrisons and Safeway, only 30 per cent of organic beef is British farmed. Most supermarkets stock mainly British-reared lamb, but even though it is in plentiful supply, some import it.

SHOPPING TIP: Shop at M&S, Waitrose or Safeway, where almost all organic beef is British sourced. For lamb, the Scottish Agricultural College found Manx Loghtan lamb lower in fat and cholesterol ( www.langleychase.co.uk)

PRICE: Organic: sirloin beef steak, 19.99 per kg; lamb, 10.99. Other: British sirloin beef steak, 13.99 per kg; leg of lamb, 8.99 per kg.

Last updated: 25-Oct-06 12:53 BST