Photo of an organic farm
Organic farming is an essential part of a healthy and sustainable future [Image: Derek Harper - Wikimedia Commons]

Organic – so much more than a lifestyle choice

8 November, 2011

There are some people who believe that organic is a lifestyle choice. We see things differently.

We believe organic is the only rational choice to maintain a sustainable and productive farming system, to preserve the essential diversity of the natural world and to ensure the quality of the foods we eat and the ingredients in other things such as beauty products.

When we talk about organic, we mean only those crops (and certified organic products made from those ingredients) which have been grown and processed under a specific and strict set of ecological regulations laid down by independent certifying bodies such as the Soil Association.

Why choose organic?

There are lots of good reasons to support organic principles. Most have to do with promoting the health of people and the environment, now and in the future.

Organic farming methods recognise the complex and delicate balance of the natural world and aim to work with natural ecosystems rather than trying to dominate them.

By encouraging wildlife biodiversity to act as a natural pest control, and by building up the nutrients in the soil to grow strong, healthy crops, reliance on synthetic chemicals is avoided.

It all seems very obvious, but it is a sad fact that over the last 50 years mankind has lost sight of its connection with the land – intensive farming techniques have been responsible for the devastation of much of our wildlife’s habitat and the subsequent loss of species. While this has happened many people have either not known or not cared or simply not understood what the consequences of this devastation are.

The human impact is quite clear too as tens of thousands of new chemicals have been released into the environment, many of them known carcinogens. At the same time, even though living standards have improved, serious health conditions have increased.

If you’ve never considered choosing organic before, here’s five things to consider:

Your planet

Approximately a third of the average consumer’s carbon footprint comes from their food shopping basket. This could be significantly reduced by choosing organic, local and seasonal foods.

Organic farming avoids polluting chemicals, and even helps reduce atmospheric CO2 by enriching soil with ploughed-in plant matter.

Artificial nitrogen fertilisers are the worst chemical offender. To produce just one tonne takes a tonne of oil, one hundred tonnes of water and emits seven tonnes of greenhouse gasses.

According to the UK Government’s Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) around 890,000 tonnes of chemicals are used each year in the UK by the industrialised agriculture industry to kill weeds, insects and other pests.

Instead of relying on chemicals, organic farmers work with nature to feed the soil and control pests.

Your wellbeing

No plant food or ingredient has greater health-giving goodness than those that have been organically grown. According to the Soil Association report, Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health, (S Heaton, 2001) organic foods and ingredients contain higher levels of vitamin C and minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium as well as health-promoting antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.

Choosing organically produced ingredients of any kind also avoids pesticide contamination. Certified organic products, food or cosmetics, further avoids all controversial additives including aspartame, MSG and hydrogenated fats. In cosmetic products it also means you avoid worrisome preservatives and phthalates.

Choosing organic also puts money into the hands of sustainable farmers, rather than those who see crops as just another commodity unrelated to the earth or soil or human well-being.

Animal welfare

Animal welfare is at the heart of organic systems, rigorously protecting all aspects of animal wellbeing.

Organic animals are free to pursue natural behaviour because they have plenty of outside space to thrive and grow. They are also not routinely dosed with antibiotics, residues of which can end up in the human food chain. Happier, unstressed animals are naturally healthier and more disease-resistant.

Many shoppers do not realise that organic products are also free range. And of course, organic beauty care products are never tested on animals.

Protecting wildlife

Organic farming relies on wildlife to help control natural pests. Wide field margins and hedgerows allow bugs, birds and bees to flourish.

They are also not sprayed away by the fertilisers, chemicals and pesticides routinely used on non-organic farms.

The loss of bee colonies is a good example of the harm that comes from widespread pesticide spraying. Colony Collapse Disorder, which is killing our bees, is widely believed to be related to industrial farming practices, from direct contamination by pesticides such as neonicotinoids, to food and habitat loss from herbicides and monoculture crops. Research shows up to 50% greater plant, insect and bird life on organic farms.

Wildlife isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’ it is part of a complex ecosystem – and we’re not just talking bugs. The peregrine falcon and otter, both top of the British food-chain species, were devastated by use of agricultural organophosphate use from the 1950s. Only the banning of these chemicals and careful land management has helped these beautiful creatures survive and flourish.

GM & nano free – guaranteed

Genetically modified (GM) crops and ingredients are banned under organic standards, together with nano-particles.

Shoppers wanting to avoid GM products may be surprised to know that over a million tonnes of GM crops are imported in the UK each year to feed non-organic livestock, which in turn supply our supermarkets with pork, bacon, milk, cheese and other dairy products.

Nano-particles are already used in a wide range of products – from cosmetics to kitchenware to clothing, you may not even know you are using them!

How to tell if it’s organic

For organic foods, it is very simple. The basic standard is set by law, so nothing can be labelled or marketed as ‘organic’ unless it really is. If a product is certified an organic certification body, for example the Soil Association in the UK, or the USDA in the US, it is a guarantee of its organic status.

The Soil Association standard guarantees: certified organic ingredients; no GMOs or nano-particles; wild-harvested plants sustainably collected from uncontaminated land; only ingredients approved by the Soil Association committee for safety and biodegradability; clear and honest labelling; minimal processing.

For beauty care, unlike food products, there are no legal regulations controlling the use of the word ‘organic’. So you may have to look harder at the label to see what percentage of the finished product is actually organic.

Even good quality organic beauty care products may not be 100% organic because certain non-agricultural ingredients, such as water or salt or clay, cannot be certified organic. Therefore a lotion, which is a mixture of water and oil, will never contain 100% organic ingredients. Neither will a shampoo, which also has a large percentage of water.

The key in such cases is to look for products that have the highest possible percentage of organic ingredients

Our organic commitment

When we say we are committed to organic we mean it. Neal’s Yard Remedies has been researching, developing and making organic products since 1981.

Our eco-factory in Dorset houses our laboratory, manufacturing and filling units as well as offices, kitchen and staff restaurant. It also has five hectares of land where we have a damask rose field, physic garden, numerous herb beds, orchard, vegetable garden and wildlife meadow – all managed under organic principles.

We also grow herbs at Sheepdrove Organic Farm in Berkshire, and collect wild growing herbs from organic farmland around our tincture unit on the Blackmore Vale, in Dorset.

Not all the plant ingredients we use can be grown locally, so we also buy organic, and Fairtrade, ingredients from around the world, including Madagascan ylang ylang, South African rooibos, New Zealand beeswax and fair trade cocoa butter from the Dominican Republic.

By choosing certified organic ingredients, we have the independent guarantee that growers and processors have undergone annual audits to ensure they comply with the strictest of environmental, ecological and sustainable criteria.