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Column: It’s not just sandal wearing hippies who grow and eat organic food

Science remains divided about organic food and its benefits – so who’s buying it? Grace Maher explains what is happening in our supermarkets.

SO WHAT EXACTLY does it mean when you buy a product that is certified organic? Organic farmers do not use artificial chemicals and fertilisers on their land, strict animal welfare standards are observed and there are no GM ingredients. Every year farmers and businesses that hold an organic licence are inspected or audited to ensure that they are adhering to the organic standards.

Last week another study emerged which claimed that organic food was not any healthier for you than non organic food. This study was compiled in Stanford University in the US. It echoed a similar study done in the UK in 2009. Science remains divided about organic food.

So who eats organic food in Ireland? The domestic market in Ireland is worth approximately  €104 million annually – so a lot of people. The background to the Irish organic food sect or starts in earnest in the late 1970s. In the early years it was associated with sandal wearing hippies who grew and consumed organic food. However much has changed in the intervening years.

Healthy diet

Bord Bia annually compiles research on people who are buying organic food and it consistently shows similar results. The three main groups that purchase organic food are pre- families, older people and people with young families. The first group might surprise people however there is a growing section of that age group who are well informed and concerned about diet and how their food is produced. The second category the “empty nesters” have less dependents and more disposable income. Many in this category also have a desire to purchase natural foods and therefore organic food appeals to them. The third category is a more obvious one as when people initially have children they start to pay more attention to how food is produced and what raw materials are used. Here organic scores very high as the lack of pesticide residues appeals to new parents. The research for 2012 to date also shows that people are buying organic food more often however as a result of this they are also buying less each time.

The entry point to the organic sector for consumers is generally vegetables and fruit. Consumers then expand to other categories of organic food. In Ireland the 4 highest categories are vegetables, fruit, fresh meat and yoghurt. These products are staples of the Irish diet and illustrate the value consumers place on sourcing these products organically. Approximately 80 per cent of organic food purchased in Ireland is done in supermarkets. The rest is sold directly to consumers via farmers markets, box schemes, and websites. Usually to get the most competitive price in the products outlined above it is best to source directly from the producer. In Ireland a high percentage of organic producers are involved in direct sales to the public. Also it makes sense to buy in season as this is when local organic produce is at its best and cheapest! Often it can be cheaper than its non organic alternative in the supermarket.

As the price of non organic food production (which is dependent on fossil fuels) continues to rise the gap between the price of organic and non organic food continues to narrow. This is likely to continue and indeed reverse as the availability of cheap food disappears.

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Pesticides

If the jury is out on whether organic food really is healthier then why do people buy organic food? The most consistent reason cited by consumers is that organic food is free from pesticides. Pesticide residues from non organic food are becoming increasingly worrying for consumers. How are these pesticides broken down and excreted by the human body? Much research needs to be done in this area. Animal welfare standards, GM free diets, preservation of biodiversity and natural resources are all other reasons why people in Ireland choose to buy organic food. Taste is also a major factor, if an organic product tastes good people will buy it. If not then people will not buy it simply because it is organic.

In Ireland there are 1,721 registered organic operators with 52,390 hectares of land certified organic. This translates to roughly 1.25 per cent of the farming community. This is small compared to the European average which is 5 per cent. This year has been extremely challenging for Irish organic producers and it is important to support them particularly when many large supermarkets are sourcing their organic products abroad as there is more availability of produce.

Grace Maher is a spokesperson for the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association. Events are taking place all around the country this week for National Organic Week which is running from September 10th – 16th.

About the author:

Grace Maher

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