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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:

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:

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:

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!

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