All about Organic Farming and Processing
THINKING ABOUT ORGANIC?
At Steenbergs organic spices and teas, we are passionate about the wonderful tastes, heady smells, glorious colours and the thrill and excitement of high quality organic spices, peppers, chilli, herbs and organic teas. We are, also, looking for organic food products that can be traced back to the farmers and growers. This provenance and such level of quality only comes through a system of organic agriculture and organic processing for spices and teas.
Organic food is about respect for the consumer and nature, making food the way consumers expect it to be made without harming, damaging or polluting our environment.
But what exactly is organic all about and what (if anything) is so bad with non-organic foods?
WHAT IS ORGANIC ALL ABOUT?
At its simplest, organic spices, herbs and teas are plants and seeds that have been grown as naturally as possible. They have been grown sustainably within the natural cycles of the earth, using farming methods that humans have been using to grow and husband plants and animals for millennia.
Organic farming is partly a reaction against processed foods and industrial farming that fights against the natural cycles of the planet by harnessing science to exploit the soil, plants and animals to eke out that extra percentage of yield for the short term rather than nurturing the soil and the spices for the longer term.
Also, in the countries that organic spices, pepper and tea comes from, it is a good programme for the farmers for other reasons – it is cheaper to farm using natural seeds and with compost and manure for fertiliser rather than purchasing chemicals and GMO seeds from the major agrochemical combines. Furthermore, a farmer that grows organic products can increase the financial yield from his crops because organic produce commands a higher price than traditionally farmed foods. So for smallholder farmers in the developing world, Steenbergs believes that organic is a more economically viable from of agriculture over industrial farming. We can show the process that organic farming follows diagrammatically as a wheel of life that ensures that all the waste material of life, animal as well as vegetable, are returned back to the soil via compost, manure or to the forest floor. This is known as the doctrine of return. This diagram has been adapted from Lionel Picton’s 1946 book “Thoughts on Feeding”.
WHAT DOES ORGANIC FARMING MEAN FOR FARMERS?
To start with, any farmer wishing to grow spices, herbs, teas or chilli organically must convert their farm land over to organic farming. This means they must follow organic practices for at least three years before they can sell their spices, pepper or chilli or their teas as organic in the UK, the EU or the USA. This is a significant commitment in time and money.
In a nutshell, organic spices, peppers, chilli, herbs and organic teas must be grown taking into account the following three main principles:
Organic seeds: organic farming starts with the organic seeds. Organic seeds must be natural and cannot be genetically engineered, so no GMO. Allied to this, many organic farmers seek to promote a range of different strains of organic plants and organic animals to strengthen the natural biodiversity of farmed species rather than seeking to reduce biodiversity through growing single species that are favoured in monoline industrial farming;
Organic soil: next comes the soil, organic farming looks to build healthy, living soil that can produce great food. Soil is nourished with manure and compost, rather than with synthetic fertilisers. It is one of the core roles of organic farmers to build a naturally rich soil structure, through carefully nourishing the soil by using natural composting techniques that build the biodiversity within the soil. Much of early organic literature focused on creating a living soil that is rich not only in nutrients and trace mineral elements, but also has a healthy level of biological activity with busy insects and other invertebrates like worms, as well as loads of microbial activity. These small creatures spend much of their lives breaking down dead animal and plant matter to build the humus. Healthy organic soil builds strong and prolific root systems within the soil structure and (perhaps) higher density of mycorrhiza associated with the root structures;
Organic farming practices: pests and diseases are a major issue for organic farmers in the same way as for traditional farmers, reducing crop and meat yields. An organic farmer cannot use artificial pesticides or routine antibiotics or non-organic sanitisers or sprays. Organic spice and tea farmers protect against disease through maintaining healthy soil, field work (weeding, hoeing and digging), intercropping and using natural controls, such as promoting birds and other natural predators such as ladybirds (or ladybugs in USA), and promoting species strength through biodiversity. For traditional farmers in the UK and USA, crop rotation, fallow periods and rotating livestock around the farm are, also, important organic farming practices.
ARE ORGANIC FOODS HEALTHIER?
With organic foods, you can be sure that artificial processing has been kept to a minimum. Organic foods tend to have higher mineral and vitamin content. No artificial chemicals are used in farming; no post-harvest chemicals are applied to plants and meat. They contain no hydrogenated fats, artificial additives, flavourings or preservatives. Put simply, organic food contains more of the good stuff we need, and less of the bad stuff that we don't need. For more details, visit Soil Association.
WHAT ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT AND BEING FAIR TO FARMERS?
Organic producers, also, consider the environmental impact of food production and the welfare of their workers.
Organic producers start with the idea that they are guardians of the land, respecting the environment, looking to preserve plant and animal species, nurturing the soil and keeping the air and water clean. For more information, you can visit the Soil Association web site.
At Steenbergs spices and teas, a key factor in the way we work is respect for people. We have a strict policy that guarantees producers a fair market value for the goods they produce. We work closely with Steenbergs suppliers to ensure that both they and their workers are paid a fair wage, as well as given decent levels of sanitation, power and education.
CAN I BE SURE THAT IT REALLY IS ORGANIC?
Organic has a strict legal meaning in the UK and USA - all food or drink sold as organic within Europe must be produced according to European laws on organic production.
For the UK, this means that farmers, processors and importers must meet regulations set out by defra; in effect, all organic businesses in UK must be reviewed every year by a recognised organic certification agency and importers must obtain import licences from defra for every non-European product.
When we have visited and checked our suppliers, we move to getting import licences from defra. This means that Steenbergs spice, herb and tea growers in India, Sri Lanka etc must also be checked every year and hold valid and current EC organic certificates. Then when we order, each shipment must be checked by the exporter's certification body, the UK Port Authorities and ourselves - Steenbergs obtains laboratory analysis of raw materials to check that they show no evidence of contamination.
The core third party check on organic status is an annual organic audit of our internal traceability procedures that checks the flow of material from seed through importation to finished Steenbergs spice, herb, seasoning or tea. This chain of custody is primarily a documented system for product traceability throughout the farming, importing and manufacturing process.
In addition, our suppliers and Steenbergs itself must follow strict procedures on separation between organic and any non-organic spices and teas to prevent cross-contamination, as well as using cleaning materials approved for organic processing. We are registered and audited annually by Organic Food Federation.
For manufacturers, retailers and consumers, you can check whether our products are organic by the Organic Food Federation symbol and/or the wording Organic Certification UK4 on our labels. The other common symbol is the Soil Association symbol and their tag line UK Certification 5.
The impact of chemicals
But aren't spices, herbs and teas organic anyway. Well unfortunately no, they are generally treated with chemical pesticides, fungicides and herbicides like all other agricultural plants.
Overall, 25,000 tonnes of pesticides are applied to crops in the UK every year and they are recommended for use in pepper and spice production, see the pepper pamphlet produced by the Spices Board of India.
Pepper, for example, suffers from diseases like foot rot (quick wilt disease) which would be treated (under convetional spice growing) by metalaxyl mancozeb or Bordeaux mixture, or slow decline disease (slow wilt) is treated by carbofuran.
Tea has many diseases that could impact it, with tea diseases including blister blight, charcoal stump rot and nematodes, such Rotylenchulus reniformis. Treatment for these includes (under conventional tea growing) chemicals or copper sulphate treatment for blister blight and synthetic nematocides. Charcoal stump rot has no specific chemical treatment. For dieback by Fusarian solani treatment is recommended to be synthetic chemicals like carbendazim or hexaconazole.
However, of the 75,000 synthetic chemicals on the market only 10% have been rigorously tested with 30% having never been checked. But what is known is not great:
Methyl bromide is used in many pesticides and as a fungicide for pepper, as well as for blanket fumigation of wooden pallets. Yet it is linked to the deaths of farmworkers in the developed and developing world, attacking the nervous system, as well as damaging lungs, kidneys and is linked to testicular cancer. It, also, damages the ozone layer, so is being phased out by 2015.
Irradiation may be used to sterilise herbs and spices under UK legislation, although it is not widely used. Where it is not used, ethylene oxide is often used. Ethylene oxide is a known genotoxic carcinogen, which has been banned in Australia for use on herbs and spices.
In the USA, farmers apply over 14 million tonnes of man-made nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers to their fields, but only 20% is actually absorbed in plant tissue. The rest runs off into our rivers and seas, where it can cause nitrate poisoning in humans, as well as algal blooms that can kill aquatic life and pollute drinking water supplies.
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE!
Food in the supermarkets just does not seem to behave in the way they should do - colours are very bright and consistent, everything is free flowing and shelf life seems very long. So for example:
Organic curry powders are light brown and contain no artificial colourings. Non-organic foods often contain permitted food colourings, such as tartrazine (E102), sunset yellow (E110) and Ponceau 4R (E124). Tandoori mixes and sauces contain Ponceau 4R and tartrazine to give it that improved look, but tartrazine is banned in Austria, Finland and Norway.
The major supermarkets and independent retailers have had product recalls for cayenne pepper, chilli powder and curry mixes during 2003 to March 2004 and more dramatically in March 2005. It was found that non-organic chillis had been "improved" with Sudan I, a carcinogenic red dye that is banned in Europe for foods and is normally used to colour shoe and floor polish.
In August 2007, Red 2G (E128) was finally banned in UK. Red 2G is a red aniline dye that is premitted for use in sausages and burgers in the UK and is used to give them a red meat-like colour (rather than the natural grey-brown for meat). It is potentially carcinogenic and is linked to hyperactivity in children. For some years, it had already been banned in many countries including the United States, Australia, Japan and Israel.
Spice powders and salts tend to cake up with moisture. That easy-flow consistency comes from anti-caking agents, such as aluminosilicate for your salt or silicon dioxide in your tandoori mix.
And finally conventional foods (i.e. non organic foods) are not that bad - a balanced diet is the best thing for all of us.
Just choose the best quality food you can find, consider where it came from, then slow down a little, relax and enjoy it!