You say you’re a greenie – you recycle, you re-use your plastic bags and you buy carbon credits when you make your kulula.com bookings online. But be honest – are you really prepared to pay more for organic food?
We all know organic food is meant to be better for our health. Eating food that’s been sprayed with pesticide and pumped with chemical fertilizers is surely not as beneficial for our well-being as fruit and vegetables that are grown in harmony with nature. But are South Africans buying into the organic trend?
Leonard Mead thinks so. He’s the CEO of Olli Organic baby foods, and the former chairperson of Organics South Africa. ‘I think from a consumer point of view, we’ve been fortunate,’ Mead says. ‘We haven’t had the scares that there have been in Europe (and recently in the US) of mad-cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease. We haven’t had to deal with reaction to these issues which is what triggered the initial growth in Europe.’
In 2003, R5 million was spent on organic products in South Africa. In 2005, that figure leaped to R155 million, according to Nielsen statistics. What has driven growth locally, Mead believes, is a consumer focus on health, international developments and a drive by major retailers to be a part of the trend. ‘There’s been a huge curve in growth and that is going to continue,’ says Mead. ‘But we are growing from nothing. There has been a small growth in the categories of organic food.’
He points to the UK where 80 percent of all baby food jars sold are organic. ‘There’s a perception that consumers only want the best for their children, even if they don’t eat organic food themselves.’
For South Africans, there has been a steady trickle of organic products onto store shelves in the past five years. Woolworths has taken the lead, and has increased its organic products from just over ten to over 150 lines. These include fruit and vegetables, dairy, eggs, meat, juice, wine, tea and even liquorice. Pick ‘n Pay, which initially was relunctant to enter the organic food market, is now making up lost ground. The retailer has launched the Organic Freedom Project, a joint initiative with Anglo Coal, which aims to rehabilitate old mining land by converting it into organic farms which supply produce for its supermarkets. The project has ambitious objectives: creating 250 000 jobs, launching 300 organic lines at select stores and powering Pick ‘n Pay trucks with biofuel. The retail giant has done market research and has found that 52% of its customers (across all income levels and race groups) would buy organic products if they were available.
Peter Arnold, general manage of Fresh Foods at Pick ‘n Pay, says customers should see Organic Freedom Project produce on store shelves by the end of the year. And it won’t only be food – everything from textiles, cosmetics and sanitary products will be covered. ‘We’re also relaunching our packaging,’ says Arnold. ‘We’re projecting a new image and making our packaging more eco-friendly and biodegradable.’
What are the benefits of organic food?
It’s good for you
Tests done by the Camden Food and Drink Association in the UK found that organic potatoes contained 26% more zinc than conventional potatoes, organic tomatoes had vitamin C and A levels which were 17.5% and 25% higher respectively, while organic apples contained 11% more vitamin C. While more scientific research needs to be done to provide conclusive results, what no one denies is that organic food is free of pesticide residue, chemical fertilizers and genetic engineering. Biowatch SA director Leslie Liddell says that more than 10 000 chemicals have been introduced into the human food chain since 1950. She says there is a strong case to link a global rise in allergies and illnesses like Parkinson’s Disease to the widespread use of pesticides. ‘An example of what can go wrong when there’s a reliance on chemical fertilizers is the high levels of arsenic and lead which were found in Eastern Cape pineapples destined for export in July.’ Those pineapples never made it to Europe, which begs the question: Did they end up in our stomachs instead?
Whereas organic fruit and vegetables are free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic meat and dairy products are free of hormones or antibiotics. Milk that has a “non-RSBT” logo on it comes from dairy cows that have not been treated with a growth hormone (recombinant bovine somatotropin) which boosts their milk production, but could potentially cause cancer. Clover, Douglasdale and Woolworths among others sell milk which does not contain this hormone. As far as organic meat goes, the animal husbandry requirements are higher, says Olli Organic’s Leonard Mead. ‘The number of livestock per hectare, the way they’re transported and the abattoir process is more regulated than regular meat.’
It boosts soil quality
Soil health lies at the heart of organic farming. Crops are farmed using natural methods used for centuries, such as crop rotation, planting complementary crops (e.g. strawberries and khakibos) and encouraging natural predators to eat pests. Critics believe that because of organic farming’s reliance on soil, it isn’t a viable option for soil-poor regions. University of Cape Town microbiologist Professor Jennifer Thomson maintains that organic farming will only feed 1% of Africa because of the continent’s poor soil quality. However, what proponents of organic farming point out is that if the soil quality is poor, it is because of man’s mismanagement of nature. Arthur Philip of Talborne Organics, which specialises in treating soil, says: ‘We’re to blame if the soil quality is poor.’ He emphasises that soil can be rehabilitated by adding micro-organisms (such as bacteria, fungi and earthworms) back into the soil. ‘We analyse the soil and correct any imbalances. We fertilise the soil and allow the soil to fertilise the plant. The biggest error made by conventional farmers is to send nutrition down to the plant, bypassing soil nutrition.’
It’s good for the environment
Organic farming is kind to nature. It lowers water pollution and enhances soil fertility. Because no toxic chemicals are sprayed onto crops, biodiversity is one of the hallmarks of organic agriculture, which means that organic farms host a great number of birds, insects, plants and other wildlife. A joint study done by English Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 2004 examined data from Europe, Canada, New Zealand and the US. It found that organic farming increases biodiversity at every level of the food chain – from humble bacteria all the way to mammals.
Why does it have to be certified?
In South Africa, there is no regulatory framework for organic food. This means that the government has not yet ratified what is considered to be organic and what is not. However, this is set to change. Mead says government’s final draft legislation relating to organic products has been presented to the World Trade Organisation and should be passed in the next six months.
Mead cautions against buying organic goods that are not certified. ‘If you’re calling your product organic, it has to be made according to certain principles. It needs to be verified by an accredited third party certifier.’
Becoming an organic farmer can take as long as three years. There are a number of certification bodies, which all operate in line with European Union regulations. A farmer in the process of becoming organic is allowed to describe his produce as ‘organic in conversion’. Says David Wolstenholme, managing director of the Organic Freedom Project, ‘Having organic certification means regular monitoring and a product test before food goes to market. [The certifier] will check if harmful chemicals are being used while the product is growing and during the processing and handling.’
Bottom line: check labels. If there’s no certification logo or certificate (if you’re buying produce from a market), you have to assume that it’s not organic.
Why is it so expensive?
This is the real test of how strongly you subscribe to the organic philosophy: Are you willing to pay more for it? Mead believes there are three reasons why organic products are more expensive than conventional food:
Because it takes three years for a farmer to become organic, it takes some time before the biodiversity of the area is fully developed. Yields are often poor until his farm is up and running. Because of this ‘conversion cost’, organic food tends to be more expensive than regular produce. However, after a few years the farmer’s production costs will start to decline. Heinrich Schultz, of the Organic Freedom Project, explains: ‘Production costs for organic farmers are much lower than conventional farmers even though the yield is not as high. For example, organic dairy cows won’t produce as much milk as conventional dairy cows which are given hormones to make them lactate more. But the cost of feeding them will be lower because organic cows aren’t force-fed.’
Supply and demand
Another contributing factor is availability. Currently there is not a huge supply of organic food. But as more farmers convert to organic and more consumers switch, the exclusivity of organic food is likely to fall away and this will bring prices down. Pick ‘n Pay’s Arnold believes that organic produce is probably 20 percent more expensive than regular food. However, the retailer is aiming for price parity in the near future.
Cost of certification
The certification process is quite costly, especially if the certifier needs to visit South Africa from a European country. Certification is ongoing and needs to be carried out every year.
Biowatch’s Liddell disputes the perception that organic food is pricey. ‘It isn’t only for those who shop at Woolworths,’ she says. ‘We work with emerging farmers in KwaZulu Natal and Limpopo – they practise traditional farming methods based on a system of intercropping and using natural remedies to overcome pests. They eat traditional foods that are chemical-free every day of their lives. It’s not just an elitist thing. Organic food is expensive – you can’t deny it. However, more people are turning to it because there are fewer risks associated with it.’
While many scientists dispute whether organic farming can deliver the yields necessary to feed the world’s growing food demand at an affordable price, supporters of organic farming believe that if we want to preserve our planet, there are no other options. As Wolstenholme says: ‘I visited a citrus orchard in KwaZulu Natal – the one side was organic and the other side was not. On the non-organic side, the farmer used sprays and fertilizers. As you stood in the middle of that orchard, there wasn’t a sound. All the birds and bugs had gone. The other side, however, was alive with sound. There were birds, bees, insects… Everything was doing their job. The bugs were eating the harmful ones. That’s how we lived for 20 centuries. And we didn’t die. But in our greed as human beings, we asked: How can we speed it all up? It’s that speeding up process that is dangerous and has caused global warming, the complete deterioration of our soils and waterways.’
He concludes: ‘You can live organically today without missing a beat. You can get almost everything you need – even chocolate! It’s just a choice that you as a consumer have to make.’
Why do you eat organic food?
Liora, 26, copywriter
I don’t eat as much of it as I would like to. One day when I have kids, I’ll make sure they eat organic meat and vegetables because it’s better for them. There are no hormones.
Nicolette, 42, project manager
There are no preservatives or pesticides in organic food. It tastes better. I wish it was more freely available. I wish there were more markets here like there are in Europe.
Neil, 26, DJ
Organic food is fresher and has more flavour. When you eat a tomato, it tastes like a tomato. When you eat a carrot, it tastes like a carrot. It also lasts a lot longer and is better for your health.
Essie, 33, online editor
People think that organic food is more expensive, but you’re paying for the real deal. You can either buy from Woolies or Pick ‘n Pay, but I prefer to go to a fresh produce market. There’s a better vibe there.
Organic food is:
- Chemically free of pesticides, hormones and antibiotics
- Usually contains higher levels of vitamins and minerals
- Often tastes better than conventional produce
- Kind to the environment
- Contains no additives (i.e. no artificial preservatives, flavourants or colourants)
Counting the cost
Do you really pay a lot more for organic products? We compare prices…
Regular low-fat strawberry yoghurt (one litre): R20.95
Organic low-fat strawberry flavoured yoghurt (one litre): R20.95
Pressed cloudy apple juice (one litre): R13.95
Organic apple juice (one litre): R16.95
Regular diced butternut (500g): R10.95
Organic diced butternut (500g): R10.95
Regular baby marrows (350g): R9.95
Organic baby marrows (350g): R12.95
Pick ‘n Pay
Pack of regular spring onions: R3.79
Pack of organic spring onions: R5.49
Regular Swiss chard (300g): R9.89
Organic Swiss chard (200g): R6.99
Regular oranges (pack of four): R7.99
Organic oranges (pack of four): R13.99
Regular baby carrots (300g): R5.69
Organic baby carrots (300g): R6.99
Going organic – where to shop
- Bryanston Organic Market, Culross Road, Bryanston. Open Thursday to Saturday, 9am to 3pm. Tel: 011 706 3671. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.bryanstonorganicmarket.co.za
- Thrupps, corner of Oxford and Rudd, Illovo. Tel: 011 268 0298. E-mail: email@example.com Website: www.thrupps.com
- Organic World, 4 Volstruis Crescent, Randpark Ridge. Tel: 011 795-2468. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.organicworld.co.za
- Irene Village Market, Jan Smuts Lane, Irene, Pretoria. Open on the second and last Saturday of every month, 9am to 2pm. Tel: 012 667 1659. E-mail: email@example.com Website: www.irenemarket.co.za
- Neighbourgoods Market, The Old Biscuit Mill, 373 – 375 Albert Road, Woodstock, Cape Town. Every Saturday from 9am to 2.30pm. Tel: 084 414 4554. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.neighbourgoodsmarket.co.za
- Imhoff Farm Market, Kommetjie Road, Cape Town. Open on the first Saturday of every month. Tel: 021 783 5828. E-mail: Kodak@mweb.co.za Website: www.imhofffarm.co.za
- Porter Estate Produce Market, Chrysalis Academy, Tokai, Cape Town. Open every Saturday from 9am to 1pm. Tel: 082 823 4121. E-mail: email@example.com
- Stellenbosch Organic Farmers Market, Stellenbosch Waldorf School. Open every Saturday from 8am to 4pm. Tel: 021 851 7678 or 082 969 5757.
- Harvest Time Farmers Market, Tau Pottery on the N2, halfway between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. Open on Saturday from 8am till 12pm. Tel: 044 532 7520. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Pietermaritzburg Farmers Market, Alexander Park, (behind the Harry Gwala Stadium). Open every Saturday from 6am to 9.30am. Tel: 033 345 4656. E-mail: email@example.com
- Shongweni Farmers Market, corner of Alveston and Kassia roads. Open every Saturday from 6.30am to 10am. Tel: 031 777 1554 or 083 777 1674. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org