Are you worried about your health?

There’s so much confusion when it comes to food. Many labels try to attract our attention – ‘Organic’, ‘Low fat’, ‘Natural ingredients’. Are these labels accurate or are they marketing gimmicks?

In this article I will explain:

  • How marketing people play on our emotions.
  • How we cannot tell where our food comes from in an easy way.
  • How you can help change things for the better.

I

How many times have people tried to sell you something by claiming their products were ‘natural’? The word ‘natural’ sounds like it’s a good thing, right? You’d rather have something natural than something synthetic after all.

This is misleading.

Sharks are natural but I won’t go swimming if there’s one close by.

When I talk to people about this, some change their tune. They correct themselves and explain they mean ‘no chemicals’. This also sounds like a good thing. Do you want chemicals in your food?

This too is misleading.

Everything is a chemical. Water is a chemical. It’s made up of hydrogen and oxygen which are themselves two other chemicals. It doesn’t matter whether you make water in a lab or whether you collect it from rain, it still will have 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom. (That’s why it’s called H2O.)

(Scientists nit-pick and refer to water as a chemical substance but hydrogen as a pure chemical. I’m not going to be this finicky.)

When someone tells you he wants to sell you something without chemicals he’s lying because that’s impossible.

What’s important is the dosage. A glass of water is fine but too much of it will drown you.

Chemicals on their own are not safe or dangerous. It’s the dosage that counts.

All the blurb around ‘chemicals’ and ‘natural’ items are marketing gimmicks. They’re designed to manipulate us because of our fear around food.

What about the term ‘organic’?

II

There is a specific definition of what ‘organic’ means when it comes to food.

The European Union has rules explaining what makes food ‘organic’:

  • They must rotate their crops. This means they must not limit fields to one crop alone. Farmers used to do this; they would dedicate entire fields to specific crops. We now know this reduces nutrients in the soil. By rotating crops, farmers plant a different crop in a field after harvesting the previous one. This enhances the quality of the soil so the fields yield more. With better quality soil, there is less need for fertilisers and pest control products. Farmers must be efficient if they want to call their produce ‘organic’.
  • Farmers cannot use Genetically Modified Organisms. The term GMO applies to anything that scientists have modified in laboratories. Humans have been breeding plants to be different for millennia and that sort of genetic manipulation is not covered by this term. Farmers cannot use artificial mechanisms to breed crops or animals if they want to call their produce ‘organic’.
  • They must restrict use of antibiotics. Farmers used to overuse antibiotics because it was easier to dump medicine to prevent whatever might happen to animals. Prevention is better than cure, right? Overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria which in turn led to other problems. For example, if antibiotics can’t kill bacteria, disease can wipe out herds or, worse, spread to humans. Farmers have to be careful with their use of antibiotics if they want to call their produce ‘organic’.
  • Farmers cannot use synthetic fertilisers. Farmers use synthetic fertilisers because they are cheaper. But these fertilisers don’t contain the micro-nutrients plants need to grow. To make matters worse manufacturers make synthetic fertilisers out of by-products from petroleum.  Farmers have to use natural fertilisers if they want to call their produce ‘organic’.
  • They cannot use chemical pesticides. A pesticide is a chemical which kills. Some kill weeds, some kill insects or small mammals. These pesticides can also attack humans. This makes them dangerous. Farmers cannot use chemical pesticides if they want to call their produce ‘organic’.

If they follow these rules, food producers can use the EU’s organic logo too. If you’re buying food in Europe and you don’t see the logo then the food isn’t organic.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The EU’s certified “Organic food” label

Given all this, how good or bad is the situation in Malta?

III

I’m sceptical.

Parliamentary secretary for Agriculture Clint Camilleri has gone on record saying, “Farmers needed pesticides to have good produce.” This goes against one of the four rules listed above. The article in the Times of Malta lets Mr Camilleri explain how it is difficult for Malta’s farmers to produce organic items. It makes for shocking reading, if you like good quality vegetables.

The government’s own figures show this is true. According to official figures only 0.2 % of our fields are organic. If more than 0.2% of your groceries are organic you might want to see if you are getting what you’re paying for.

To all this I would add a few questions:

  • What enforcement does the government do? It’s not enough to say you’re following the rules. Someone has to verify this, and see things get better if necessary.
  • What effect does pollution have on our produce? We see farmer’s trucks parked on the side of roads and huge amounts of exhaust coating our vegetables. Are these carcinogenic chemicals making our food worse?

I’m painting a miserable picture here. Is it all doom and gloom?

IV

No. It’s not a perfect situation but it’s not all bad.

Here’s what you can do if you want proper produce on your kitchen table:

  1. Look out for fancy labels like ‘organic’ if they’re not accompanied by the EU’s logo. If we all call out dodgy suppliers they’ll change their ways soon enough.
  2. When you can, buy local. Produce which hasn’t travelled far to get to you isn’t pumped full of preservatives to keep it fresh.

References

  1. The EU’s organic food market: facts and rules; European Parliament; 2018-04-10
  2. Crop Rotation and Farm Management; Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education; (Retrieved 2019-04-12)
  3. Stop using antibiotics in healthy animals to prevent the spread of antibiotic resistance; World Health Organisation; 2017-11-07
  4. Synthetic Fertilizer; Maximum Yield; (Retrieved 2019-04-12)
  5. Pesticides; World Health Organisation; (Retrieved 2019-04-12)
  6. Pesticides necessary for farmers, parliamentary secretary insists; Claire Caruana; Times of Malta; 2019-03-14
  7. Organic farming; Government of Malta; (Retrieved 2019-04-12)

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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