organicBruce Cohen.

Every year around Easter our factory is visited by a rather stern and methodical man named Ralph who represents Germany’s BCS Oko, one of the largest and most respected organic inspection agencies (it certifies 450 000 farms and 1000 businesses like ours around the world).

In the build-up to his visit, Absolute Organix is a flurry of high-adrenalin activity as we rush to ensure that all the documentation around our organic procurement and processing as well our physical production facilities will stand up to Ralph’s laser-beam scrutiny.

Inspector Ralph will spend the entire day sifting through all the paperwork required for organic certification (and it’s a small mountain), inspecting our premises and watching our production processes. He’ll do spot checks to ensure that purchases and sales of organic ingredients/products match up (so there’s no adulteration with non-organic stuff); he’ll randomly pull production sheets to check batch numbers against manufacturing and drill down to see whether our organic policies and processes are a) rigorous and b) actually implemented; he’ll review the validity of the organic certificates of all our suppliers and look closely at the storage of all our organic ingredients, and he’ll review final product labels to ensure compliance.

At the end of the day Ralph will have exhausted us and we’re only too happy to see him go! A few weeks later, if all the paperwork adds up and the site inspection has been satisfactory, we’ll get an email from Germany confirming the extension of our organic certificate for another year. (You can view our current certificate here)

Is it worth it? All this hassle and extra cost? There are plenty of people selling “organic” stuff without any certification and (most) retailers never ask for proof anyway; consumers seem to be pretty ignorant of what organic certification and standards actually mean and most will happily accept as organic any product that simply says it is.

Unlike the USA and Europe, there’s no oversight of the organic sector in SA (though there’s talk of government getting involved and that’s probably even more worrying). There’s also the great tragedy that this country has so little indigenous organic agriculture. We may in fact have the worst record of food contamination in the world: SA is the only country that permits the staple food of the majority of its population (maize) to be genetically modified.

I’ve always approached my business and the foods we sell from a decidedly simple premise: would I want to consume it? It cuts to the chase.

You might still hear the odd pathetic whimper of organic denialists, but their cause is well and truly lost. The science behind the nutritional benefits of organic foods compared to conventional is substantial and solid. See for example this piece.

So (certified) organic is my first choice (and most likely yours too). But I will just as happily consume non-organic foods as long as I know where they come from. It’s all about provenance (a term borrowed from the wine industry: who made it, where it was made, how it was made).

In my view, while organic certification is a vital stamp of authenticity for imported products and ingredients, for local foods, provenance is just as – or perhaps even more – important.

Buying veggies from a local co-op that does not have organic certification but which does all the right things in terms of excluding pesticides and synthetic fertilizers is actually a better option than buying certified organic produce from a supermarket because it’s very likely the food miles involved in getting the stuff onto shelf, the packaging and the
handing, have depleted the nutrient/energetic value of the food and left a pretty dirty carbon footprint.

There are some products, however, where organic certification really does set a critical quality standard. I have written on a number of occasions about the differences between cold-pressed, virgin coconut oil vs copra-derived coconut oils. There are those in the sector who brush off the organic issue claiming that all coconuts are grown organically (i.e. no fertilizers or pesticides are used) and in this they are correct. The problem, however, is not the growing, it’s the processing.

Coconut oil made from copra (the dried meat often left out for weeks even months in unsanitary conditions) is typically chemically extracted using hexane and requires intensive further processing in order for it to be used as a food – refining, bleaching and deodorizing, which basically denatures the oil and strips it of all its vitality (as dead as margarine, you could say. But it’s cheap.) Cold-pressed, virgin coconut oil is made from fresh coconuts without any chemicals and with its myriad nutrients intact. Made under organic certification, the consumer can be assured that the oil is undenatured and lives up to its promise.

Of similar concern is imported seeds, like flax, that need to be fumigated before being shipped. If it’s not certified organic, then it’s almost certainly been fumigated with carcinogenic chemicals like methyl bromide. The chemical residues (from fumigation and pesticides) become part of the food. If, however, the flax seed is certified organic, only harmless carbon dioxide is allowed as a fumigant (of course, no pesticides are used).

So there are some complex issues involved in getting to grips with the impact and importance of organic certification (when it really does matter, and when it’s less important). We need to look more closely at not just the agricultural aspects of organic production but also at the next stages of processing and handling. Just because a food is grown “organically” does not mean it is pure and/or nutritious.

Organic certification is a hallmark of our company – but let’s face it, it piles on costs that ultimately the consumer must bear. Because organic yields are typically lower than that of conventional crops (think GM seeds, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers which are all designed to increase crop yields), and involves production processes which need to be handled more carefully, going organic is too often an option only for the wealthy. It’s a bit like the healthcare system – only the rich can afford to get sick these days. That being said, if you are among the fast-growing army of people worldwide who recognise the threat of agro-business foods to our health and to that of the planet, then we know we don’t really have a choice – buy/grow/barter natural/organic foods that are least processed, least damaged and nutritionally complete. There simply is no alternative.