Going organic

It’s taken over three decades, but organic food has finally gone mainstream in Australia. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

By 2010, the last time a major survey was undertaken, retail sales for organic products had reached the $1 billion mark. And six out of 10 Australian households were buying, at least occasionally, organic food. What’s more, 91 per cent of Australians were saying that their food being free of chemicals was important to them.

Given this shift in consumer sentiment, it’s not surprising that organic fruit and veggies – which previously could only be purchased from someone with dreadlocks and a facial piercing at an inner-city food co-op – are now readily available in suburban Coles and Woolies outlets. But what exactly is organic produce, why should you eat it and what’s involved in making the switch?

For a product to be organic, it should be grown and processed without the use of synthetic chemicals (artificial colours, flavours or preservatives), fertilisers or genetically modified organisms. Confusingly, there are a number of organisations in Australia that provide organic certification, all supplying different symbols for food packaging, but it’s not hard to learn to identify authentically organic produce.

But why go to all the trouble and extra expense of buying organic food over the conventionally farmed variety? In short, the pro-organic lobby argue their product improves the health of those consuming it, is better for the environment, involves less cruelty to livestock and simply tastes better.

Many of those who make a living with their discerning palates, including the likes of Kylie Kwong and Stephanie Alexander, argue that organic food tastes better. And there’s little doubt that organic farming is eco-friendly, and that animals probably don’t enjoy being pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics. But while there are many anecdotal reports of medical conditions like migraines, hyperactivity and asthma improving after people make the switch to organic, there is no conclusive scientific evidence to back up people’s belief that avoiding chemically treated food improves their health in the short and long term.

Organic food is still yet to entirely shake off its hippie past, leading many to believe that going organic somehow necessitates becoming a vegan and joining Greenpeace. The reality is that the only thing that’s required is making the choice to buy organic products, something hundreds of thousands of Australians do every day.

You don’t have to become vegetarian (there’s plenty of great organic meat out there) and you don’t have to sacrifice eating ‘bad’ food. Most people take a ‘flexitarian’ approach to organic food: buying chemical-free fruit, vegetables and meat wherever possible, but happily eating conventionally grown produce when it’s offered to them, or when there’s nothing else readily available.