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What actually makes a product organic?

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Interest from consumers has led to organic products flooding store shelves. However, similarly named products have proven to be deceiving.

Organic products have gained a lot of popularity in the last two decades. Whether from a greater concern for health or a commitment to the environment, it’s clear that more and more consumers are choosing to look for the organic label when buying.

However, what actually makes a product organic? What’s required to meet this designation? What strategies do some companies use to pull the wool over our eyes? Do organic foods guarantee a healthy and sustainable diet?

What are organic products?

Essentially, organic products are those whose production is subject to regulations designed to care for and protect the environment. They fully avoid the use of chemicals. That is why they are also called natural or eco. Whether they are natural or processed, they must not contain any type of chemical element to be considered organic. This includes no use of fertilizers, medicines, ­hormones or genetically modified organisms (also known as transgenic organisms).

For this reason, this type of product, generally food, is usually subject to more safety controls, in order to assure consumers that they’re getting what they actually want.

What are organic product regulations like?

Regulations that indicate requirements of organic products are generally based on the same values and principles. A good example is how the Regulation (EU) 2018/848 of the European Parliament and Council regulates organic production and labeling of organic products.

These regulations include prohibiting GMOs and ionizing radiation treatment; separating organic and non-organic agricultural production (both animals and land); respecting soil life and natural soil fertility in plant production; and organic production of seeds and plant reproductive material. Also, farms that want to produce organic products must undergo a conversion period. These are just some of the guidelines producers have to follow.

Then, for consumers to be sure of what they are buying, products need proper labeling with a specific logo that makes it clear which products are organic. That way, consumers will know they aren’t trying to be sold something with a similar concept that masks the truth.

What products are not organic?

The growing interest in this type of production, which seems essential for the future of an overpopulated planet, leads companies and producers to try to get a piece of the pie through half-truths or playing on the organic label.

This is where consumers should pay close attention to the labeling, because that’s what it’s for. Just glance at supermarket shelves and you’ll find products that are 100 percent natural, eco, organic, artisan, traditional, and so on. All these words can make us believe that the food is produced in an environmentally friendly way, when it’s just a publicity stunt.

If a manufacturer wants to sell a truly organic product, it will use the corresponding logo, one granted by the competent body. Therefore, only products that carry this logo can be categorized as “Organic.”

This doesn’t mean that other natural or green products are not good, far from it. They may even be of a better quality but they will not be produced, raised or cultivated without chemical products.

A good example of this is wine. Organic wines are not necessarily higher quality than non-organic wines, but this label does mean that the whole process was free of chemicals: from harvesting the grapes to producing the wine itself.

Benefits of organic products

However, while “organic” is not always synonymous with “healthier,” foods produced in this way are usually healthier and more nutritious. This is according to a report by the European Parliament, which indicates that they offer higher quality to consumers and provide better organoleptic properties and improved taste.

This report, conducted by the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology, also highlights the fact that opting for organic food may reduce the risk of allergic disease and obesity, since those who choose it are more aware of good food and a healthy diet.

In addition, the simple act of buying organic products also helps raise social awareness of the need for systems that are more environmentally friendly, even though their sometimes expensive manufacturing processes may lead to higher prices. Of course, there are also some contradictions surrounding this issue.

There are always environmental benefits

As indicated above, with the world’s exponential population growth, sustainable and environmentally friendly production processes are essential, since human beings have been immersed in a spiral of environmental destruction for decades.

One of the missions of sustainable and ecological production is to safeguard the environment—both flora and fauna—based on the sensible use of nature, i.e. not abusing natural resources. We need to remember that this is what led to climate change, which has devastating consequences for the world and, therefore, for human beings.

However, awareness and consistency must go hand in hand with movements such as organic production. Otherwise, the benefits will be minimized.

This was stated by Óscar Picazo in the article “A vueltas con lo eco” (“Tackling the organic label”) in the Fundación MAPFRE magazine La Fundación. He pointed out that “The Organic seal does not consider important sustainability aspects such as the water footprint (the amount of water used to produce that food), carbon footprint (the amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, generated both in production and transportation), crop yield per unit area (lower in Organic production) or the impact on the ecosystem and animal or plant diversity.” To illustrate this, he offered a powerful example: “In a European supermarket, we can find peculiar cases of apples with the Organic seal from New Zealand. It’s clear that the best Organic farming practices will have been followed in their production. However, the carbon footprint generated by transporting them more than 15,000 km (around 9,320 miles) to their final destination and preserving them for the entire journey takes away from all the other ecological aspects of their production.”