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Understanding organic ‘labels’

In this conclusion to the two-part series on organic food, we look at what constitutes organic products.

IN our last issue (Why bother going organic?, Fit4life, 29 Dec, 2013), we talked about the health benefits of going organic, particularly when it comes to food. In this issue, let’s take a closer look at what the term “organic” is all about.

Basically, organic farming utilises natural ways to manage crops. When planting crops, natural fertilisers such as manure or compost are used to feed the soil and plants instead of synthetic fertilisers. Some really fastidious parties would even go as far as to ensure that the manure comes from organically-bred animals, and that the compost is produced from waste material of organic locations.

Instead of using chemicals and insecticides to control pests and reduce plant disease, organic farms use natural ingredients such as enzymes or plant-based pesticides. Companion planting is practised, where certain plants that are known to repel insects (such as marigold or bunga tahi ayam) are planted close to crops.

Instead of using chemicals and insecticides to control pests and reduce plant disease, organic farms use natural ingredients such as enzymes or plant-based pesticides. – Filepic

Other methods used include setting insect traps using sugar water, and utilising beneficial insects and birds for pest control. Weeds are a common problem among farmers, as they can grow out of control and deplete nutrients from the soil. While conventional farmers use synthetic herbicides to kill weeds, organic farmers use environmentally-friendly ways such as hand-weeding, mulching or crop rotation.

For organic meat and eggs, breeders need to ensure that their animals are given organic feed and are allowed outdoors to enjoy a free-range life. Unlike animals in conventional farms, organically-bred animals are not given antibiotics, growth hormones or medications to spur faster growth. Since organic products come at a premium, it helps to know what you’re paying for.

Relevant terms

Here are some common labels and what they really mean:

GMO-free: GMO stands for Genetically-Modified Organism, and refers to products that have been genetically modified using modern biotechnology. A large percentage of agricultural products today are genetically engineered in some way to promote faster, better growth.

GMO-free products refer to food products that have not been genetically tampered with and remain in its original condition.

Natural: A food that is labelled “natural” can mean many things, such as being produced without additives, preservatives, colouring or flavouring. It does not mean that the product is organic, because “natural” is a term defined by law.

Organic: Here’s a surprise – products such as cookies, jam, honey, cereal or others labelled organic just mean that more than 70% of its ingredients are organic. Other minor components in the product may not be organic.

Animals that are claimed to be organically-bred cannot be cloned or genetically-modified, must have access to the outdoors, fed only organically-grown crops, and are never treated with antibiotics or hormones.

100% organic: This means that the product is completely organic. This label is most commonly used for organic fruits, vegetables, eggs or other single-ingredient foods. The label usually comes in the form of a seal that is legally recognised by the certifying countries.

In organic farming, companion planting is often practised, where certain plants that are known to repel insects (such as marigold or bunga tahi ayam) are planted close to crops. – Filepic

Organic certifications

Countries with recognised organic regulatory bodies include the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the European Union, Canada, Japan, France and India. The regulating organisations establish standards on how produce must be grown, handled or processed, in order to be certified 100% organic. Countries that do not have the same regulations will usually recognise organic certifications from larger nations such as the US, the European Union or Japan.

In Malaysia, organic certification for local and imported produce falls under the Malaysian Organic Scheme (Skim Organik Malaysia) under the Crop Quality Control Division of the Department of Agriculture. Importers who repack their products locally can also get the Organic Malaysia mark by registering with Organic Alliance Malaysia, which collaborates with the Department of Agriculture for the processing and verification of imported organic goods.

It helps to note that organic certifications are voluntary and are used mainly by organic businesses to gain accreditation; hence, many small-time farmers do not get their produce certified or registered because they feel it is unnecessary. For instance, you may know of a local grower near your home who practices permaculture methods and does not use pesticides or fertilisers. His or her produce may not have any seal of approval from the authorities, but they are certainly superior to pesticide-laden commercially-grown fruits and vegetables.

Perhaps, a visit to the pasar tani (farmer’s market) on weekends may be worthwhile to check out some locally-grown food.

The Star Newspaper, JANUARY 11, 2014
Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar

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