Organic labels not always what they seem

·3-min read

Australia's organic food industry is booming, with the retail market worth an estimated $2.6 billion and demand growing more than 20 per cent a year.

Walk into any supermarket and be surrounded by the evidence. But what does buying organic really mean?

While consumers have been conditioned to believe it's about sourcing produce free of hormones and pesticides, leading food and health expert Jayashree Arcot warns this isn't quite so.

The senior University of NSW researcher says organic farms are only certified as such after operating under organic principles for three years.

They also have to pass a strict audit and review process.

While organic foods are generally grown and processed without synthetic chemicals, what is labelled 'organic' might not always strictly be so.

"There are pesticides approved for organic agriculture and these are supposed to be low in toxicity compared to pesticides used in conventional farming," Prof Arcot said.

"Just because you sell it as organic, it doesn't really mean it's pesticide free."

While food labelling should help consumers make an informed choice it can often leave them confused.

Australia has no mandatory certification requirement for organic produce, with the process privately owned and managed by organisations approved by Australian Biosecurity and Inspection.

According to industry body Australian Organic, Australia is misaligned with global standards and officially the world's last developed nation to not have a mandatory domestic standard for using the word "organic".

"Many products carry a symbol or logo to show that they are certified organic but that is not always the case," Prof Arcot said.

"Unless it's certified by one of these organisations, there is no way of guaranteeing the authenticity of organic produce sold to consumers.

"The onus is on us, as consumers, to do our research."

With an estimated six in 10 Australian households buying organic foods on occasion, that's a lot of googling.

Prof Arcot says even though pesticides are used in conventional farming, the levels in fresh produce are not high enough to be detrimental.

The bottom line: "people should not be alarmed if they do not purchase organic products".

Even so, there are good health reasons for buying organic foods.

A major European Union-funded study in 2014 found they may reduce the risk of allergic disease and obesity although the evidence wasn't conclusive because consumers of organic food tend to have healthier lifestyles.

Spanish researchers say organic food intake is associated with stronger reasoning and short-term memory retention in school-aged children.

While they still contain some pesticides, organic foods are generally more expensive because the farming is labour intensive.

However Prof Arcot says the biggest winner when consumers choose organic is the environment.

"While organic farming typically has lesser yields, it has a smaller carbon footprint compared to conventional agriculture which is a large emitter of greenhouse gases," she said.

While organic farming has its economic limitations, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud is keen to develop Australia's potential and has moved to establish the Organics Industry Advisory Group.

"With a huge amount of organic agricultural land, Australia is well placed to take advantage of the global organic market, which is already worth more than $US97 billion ($A129 billion)," he said recently.

"This is only set to grow due to rising consumer demand."

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