What exactly is organic food?
Organic farming and food production is a farming and food production system. Organic farmers strive to produce high-quality food while employing practises that benefit our entire food system, from people to the environment, plant health to animal welfare.
In the face of climate change, diet-related illness, and widespread wildlife decline, the need to change our food systems has never been greater - a shift to 'agroecological' farming systems, such as organic, can make a world of difference.
No other defined farming and food production system comes close to delivering such a wide range of benefits to wildlife, society, and the natural world. Organic farmers adhere to a strict set of standards that must legally comply with strict EU regulation in order to ensure the health of:
These standards are based on the following organic agriculture principles:
Certification is legally required to grow, process, or market organic products, and all organic farms and businesses are inspected at least once a year by a certification body. This means that when you see the organic symbol, you can be confident that the food and drink you buy is better for people, animals, and wildlife, as well as the natural environment.
How does organic farming work in practise?
Using fewer pesticides
Pesticides are chemicals that are designed to kill insects and other pests, such as weeds (herbicides) and fungal diseases (fungicides). Recent research identifies pesticides' direct and indirect effects as key drivers of global insect declines and the biodiversity crisis.
All weedkillers are prohibited under the Soil Association's organic standards, and farmers are only permitted to use a very limited number of naturally derived pesticides as a last resort (such as citronella and clove oil), and only in very limited circumstances.
Organic farmers aim to create a natural balance between plants and animals to prevent pests rather than relying on pesticides.
Farmers encourage birds, beetles, and other 'beneficial insects' (like ladybirds) onto their farms to eat pests like aphids, slugs, and caterpillars.
Similarly, crop rotation and careful crop selection reduce the risk of plant disease, and weeds are managed through practises such as mechanical weeding and planting natural weed suppressants such as buckwheat.
Avoiding artificial fertilisers
Organic farming avoids the use of synthetic fertilisers because the principles of organic farming are based on naturally nourishing plants by cultivating fertile soils. Farmers do this by 'fixing' nitrogen with clover and legumes, as well as using compost, animal manure, and green manures (such as the white clover shown below), and crop rotations to maintain healthy, nutrient-rich soils.
Improved animal welfare standards
One of the most important aspects of organic farming is animal welfare, and Soil Association Certification has the highest farming welfare standards in the UK.
Organic standards cover every aspect of animal welfare, from living conditions and feed to transportation and humane slaughter.
Learn more about organic eggs
Organic eggs are produced by chickens raised on farms with the highest welfare standards. Discover what distinguishes organic egg standards from free-range, caged, and barn eggs.
Animals must be truly free-range, with plenty of space and fresh air, and raised in conditions that suit their natural behaviour, according to organic standards. This means fewer flocks and herds, as well as greater access to the outdoors.
Painful mutilations, such as beak-trimming of poultry, are also not required or permitted to prevent the aggressive side effects of stress.
Antibiotics are not used on a regular basis
Antibiotics and wormers are routinely used in non-organic UK agriculture, accounting for approximately 30% of all antibiotics used in the UK, but using them preventatively is prohibited in organic farming.
Farmers do not need antibiotics when their animals are raised in clean environments, fed a nutritious diet, and given more space.
Antibiotics are only used as a last resort by organic farmers. Furthermore, the Soil Association's higher standards forbid the use of certain antibiotics, such as Colistin, which is critical to human health.
There is no genetic modification (GM)
While GM, or 'GMO,' foods are very limited in the UK, they are fed to the majority of non-organic livestock. Because organic systems are opposed to genetic modification, all GM ingredients are prohibited in organic standards, and animals on organic farms must be fed a natural, organic, and non-GM diet.
Organic farmers and processors must demonstrate that their products are free of prohibited substances from farm to fork.
There are no artificial colours or preservatives
The use of additives and processing aids is strictly prohibited in organic products, and toxic ingredients are not permitted.
Many artificial food colourings and preservatives, such as sodium benzoate, aspartame (artificial sweetener), and monosodium glutamate, are prohibited in organic foods.
What exactly does organic certification imply?
Organic certification organisations work with farmers and food processors to ensure that their products meet strict organic standards mandated by law.
These standards are supplemented in some places by the Soil Association's higher standards (such as our ban on pig and poultry mutilations like beak tipping, feather clipping and castration).
All organic farms and manufacturing facilities are inspected at least once a year, with some inspections taking place unannounced.
Obtaining organic certification is difficult; when you see the organic symbol, you know you're buying a product you can trust.
What is the distinction between organic and natural?
Unlike the 'natural' labels that you may see on many food products, 'organic' is a legally protected term.
To be labelled as organic, a food or drink product must contain at least 95% of its ingredients from organically grown plants or animals.
These ingredients must be approved by an independent certification body, such as the Soil Association.
When you see the Soil Association logo, it means the product has been certified by Soil Association Certification, which certifies over 70% of organic food in the UK.
Did you know that organic certification can also be obtained for wool, cotton, health and wellness products, and cleaning products?
Wherever you see the Soil Association organic symbol, you can be confident that the product you're purchasing was produced to the highest standards.
Why is organic food and farming important?
The need to produce healthy food and reduce greenhouse gas emissions has never been more important in the face of climate change, rising diet-related ill-health, and widespread declines in our wildlife. Learn more about how organic food and farming can play a key role in creating a better future.