How does a typical organic loaf compare with its non-organic counterpart, and what are the benefits of going organic?
So, you might be asking yoursefl: 'Okay, so I’ve got real about my bread but why should I also go organic?' or perhaps 'Isn't organic bread what the Campaign calls Real Bread, anyway?'
Soil Association Certification Limited’s Lee Holdstock asks how does a typical organic loaf of bread compare with its non-organic counterpart, and are there really any benefits of going organic?
Most of us would imagine bread to be pretty benign stuff, certainly not something that could have much impact on us as individuals or the wider world. But bread is like any other food, taking energy and resources to deliver. Do it well and you can create a product that is good for you and your planet, cut corners and unsurprisingly there are negative consequences. The organic food and farming movement have long been aware of the impacts of intensive food and farming, their ideas historically advocating practices that harness of natures own processes to bring us food, food with a lower social and environmental impact.
More than three hundred food additives are currently permitted for use in the UK and although we are assured of their safety, problems continue to be identified and approvals to use revoked. The most recent example was the result of a 2007 Food Standards Agency funded study, which concluded that a number of common additives can cause hyperactivity in children.
Though artificial additives are not banned outright by organic standards, it should be no surprise that the Soil Association takes a precautionary approach and many independent organic bakers (including all who have listed their loaves on the Real Bread Finder) choose not to use any. The Association’s organic standards currently allow only thirty eight of the three hundred additives to be used. Of these, the ones with functions in loaf manufacture are:
* Iron and the B vitamins niacin and thiamin are also added by law to all UK-milled bread flour (except wholemeal) including that which is certified organic. None of these 'fortificants' are not shown on the label.
Though E464 Hydroxy-propyl-methyl-cellulose can be used to increase water absorption and volume, affect crumb structure and softness, and retard staling of a loaf, or as a gluten substitute, organic standards only permit it to be used for vegetarian capsules or for film coating of tablets, not baking.
Organic standards do permit enzymes to be used as processing aids but only if they are: not made by genetically-modified (GM) organisms, and do not contain detectable GM DNA from the substrates used to grow the micro-organisms. See pages 36-40 of The Soil Association’s organic standards for food and drink
If the loaf is certified organic and the baker adheres to Real Bread standards, no artificial additives (with the exception of the mandatory 'fortificants') or processing aids will have been used.
Pesticides are another major concern for the organic movement. The Pesticides Safety Directorate in the UK currently permits more than 350 different treatments and it’s not unusual for crops to be sprayed with more than one substance. Again consumers are reassured that the residues in food from all these chemicals will be at legally permissible levels and harmless, but the cumulative and so-called ‘cocktail’ effects still remain poorly understood.
Organic farmers cannot use herbicides, and only a limited number of mineral or plant-based substances (many only in exceptional circumstances with prior approval based on a detailed plan) for controlling pests or fungal infections. These include potassium bicarbonate, limited amounts of copper salts (such as copper oxychloride), sulphur, potassium soap (soft soap), extracts of a plant called derris, natural pyrethrums (made from pyrethrins extracted from Chrysanthemum cineriaefolium), and iron (III) phosphate. For full details, see page 77 -79 of The Soil Association’s organic standards for farming and growing.
Pest control substances are not just restricted to farms, they can also be used directly in the storage of non-organic food. It’s not unusual for detectable levels of organophosphate-based products to be found in stored non-organic grain, these products being commonly used to control pests such as flour beetles.
Arguably the top health issues associated with bread are coeliac disease and wheat or gluten allergy or intolerance. Though these appear to be ever-more common, confusion seems to exist as to what exactly consumers are having adverse reactions. It is undoubtedly a complex set of issues, but there are certain things we are doing to our crops and our bread that can’t be helping.
One example is nitrate use on crops. Wheat is often sprayed prior to harvest with synthetic nitrate fertilisers to boost the development of proteins that will form gluten in bread making, but at what cost? Research published in the Swedish Journal of Agriculture by Stenram et al in 1990 found that levels of Omega 5 gliadin, a protein found in cereals, increase with nitrate use. It’s interesting to consider that these gliadin proteins (which along with glutenin proteins make up gluten) are implicated in coeliac disease and gluten allergy. One 2006 study published in the Journal of Oral Pathology & Medicine (O'Farrelly et al) suggested that somewhere between 3 and 15% of the normal population have anti-gliadin antibodies (AGA), which means their immune systems are primed to launch an allergic reaction to this protein. Organic farming helps to address this issue in several ways. Not only is the application of synthetic nitrates to crops prohibited, but organic growers are also encouraged to consider traditional lower yielding wheat varieties, which as well as being more compatible with organic farming systems, also produce lower gliadin levels.
Read more about coeliac disease, food allergies and intolerance here.
Possibly one of the most alarming nutritional concern relates directly the crop itself, with studies conducted specifically on wheat by the prestigious Rodale Institute showing steady reductions in concentrations of key nutrients over the last few decades. This the studies claims is primarily due to the increased use of modern crop varieties, which yield more than older, typically lower yielding varieties increasing favoured by organic farmer. Higher yields from soil containing ever decreasing nutrient levels means of course, less nutrient kilo for kilo in the wheat used to make the flour and ultimately your loaf. The answer of course is building soil fertility in the manner required in organic farming, perhaps accepting lowers yield and working to increase the amount of fertile land area from crops by looking after our soils properly.
OK, so an organic loaf might well be better for us, but how does it contribute to saving the planet? To begin with organic flour made from organically grown wheat supports a method of farming which is less polluting. The avoidance of agrochemical inputs in organic farming is certainly better for encouraging wildlife diversity. One 2005 study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology concluded that there will be 30% more species on the average organically managed farm. Many practices typically employed by organic farmers can deliver other more subtle combined wildlife benefits too, practices such as spring cropping, which benefit nesting and over-wintering birds by leaving cover when it’s most needed and residual seed to help get birds through the colder months. Organic farmers are also encouraged to plant hedgerows and create other habitat to encourage beneficial predator insects, which by default benefits the wider ecology on farm.
How about climate change? Well if we want to get a bit technical we can show how organic farming can also deliver benefits here to. Organic farming techniques reduce the risk of nitrate leaching by targeting nutrients more effectively and reducing emissions of N2O - a far more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. Fertility building grass leys within an organic rotation system can also help with climate change by increasing carbon sequestration in the soil according to Kustermann et al 2007, which means significant CO2 mitigation potential compared with non-organic systems of agriculture which don’t focus on getting green matter back into the soil. With climate change come the duel spectres of drought and flood. With the prospect of too much or too little water is fast becoming a serious global issue, even here organic farmers come to our aid, their well developed soils helping plants to root more deeply so better resisting drought better. Such soils can also hold more water, acting as a buffer against flooding. In this respect organic farming, with its lack of reliance of chemicals derived from ever dwindling oil supplies, is a more resilient system in the face of changing climate. The CO2 issue however is inextricably linked to the issue of energy. It's quite alarming to hear the International Development Scientist Dr Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute state that conventional agriculture uses ten kilocalories of inputs to produce one kilocalorie of food, whereas organic forms of agriculture can give us three kilocalories of crop for every one we put in. Hans reminds us that the current conventional approach is only possible as long as long as there is still cheap oil.
Organic bread doesn’t just bring benefits to you and the environment, frequently overlooked are the social benefits related to a farmers choice to go organic. It’s a little appreciated fact that organic farming improves rural employment prospects. One study published by the Centre for Agricultural Strategy predicted that over 210,000 new jobs would be created in England and Wales if all farmers adopted organic practices. With the average age of farmers now at 55, MAFF statistics illustrate a worrying demographic trend in UK agriculture, so it’s encouraging to discover that organic farmers tend to be younger, more often women and also more entrepreneurial. There is also a serious side to the social impact of non-organic farming. Non-organic farmers are encouraged to spend large sums money on synthetic inputs and technologies such as GM, inputs and technologies which are becoming ever more expensive and as mounting evidence suggests, less and less effective. The money needed for these inputs is often borrowed, obliging farmers to get into debt, a significant problem in parts of the developing world where interest rates can be high and indebted farmer desperate. Organic farmers are free of such commercial burden, free to farm how they wish and determine their own future.
It might cost few pence more, but when you consider all the incredible benefits delivered from field to oven, it makes sense, as you’re closer to paying the true cost of a product made with care, care for you, care for your world. So support a system of farming and food that is better adjusted to help us face the future, use your loaf and choose organic.
'Organic food production within the European Union (EU) is strictly regulated. If you are a farmer, grower, food processor, storage provider and/or an importer of organic food from a non-EU country, or if you market organic products, you must be registered with an approved organic control body. You must also be inspected at least once a year to ensure that you meet the EU-wide standards. Only then can your products legally be labelled and marketed as 'organic'.'
You can read more official information and advice about the law surrounding organic food (including labelling and marketing) on the following governmental websites:
Other bodies licensed to certify organic standards also meet EU rules, but theirs can differ for the Soil Association's.
Here are some other links that you might find useful.