Monday, April 02, 2012

Organically Free Rangified

Having had occasion to wander through Woolworths a few times of late, I couldn't help but notice the astounding abundance of food products labelled "organic" and "free range". Which is fine. Although interestingly these products tend to be priced a little higher than their counterparts that aren't similarly labelled.

Could your food be killing you?
I must admit that after the scathing rebuttles of "organic" products I've come across both on Skeptoid and Penn & Teller's Bullshit, I'd written the whole notion off as a silly marketing gimmick and simply avoided buying those products myself. My co-conspirator Angela Meadon wrote about the relative health benefits of organic food (or the lack thereof) too.

But recently I've gotten to thinking: although the "organic" and "free range" labels are effectively meaningless when it comes to American products, is the same true here in South Africa? Are the same standards applied in both places?

More simply: when I pick up a bunch of "organic" bananas or a dozen "free range" eggs at my local Woolies, what does that mean?

(I'm picking on Woolies because they make a lot of fuss about their organic and free range products, but all the major retail chains in South Africa sell their own counterparts)

One might assume that these things are mandated by some sort of legal standard - that the government has laid down what they are supposed to be, and enforces those standards through some sort of certification and inspection process. One would be wrong.

The South African government has made no such determination, and it's up to the food industry itself to create, manage and enforce those standards. The SAGov only requires that food be safe to eat, that the food be properly labelled when sold to the public, and that no misleading claims be made about the contents of a food item. Here's the Act, if you need help getting to sleep - you'll note that the terms "organic" and "free range" do not appear in it.

So, in other words, the group that has the most to gain by potentially inventing and propagating a bogus marketing term is the very same group charged with doing so. Charged by whom? Themselves. That's not to say they're not doing a good job of it, just that it's seldom wise to put the fox in charge of the free range hen-house. Conflicts of interest like this are seldom a good place to start.

But start we shall. Let's look at what the standard definitions are for these two categories:

Organic Food.

The trouble here is coming up with a single, unified definition. Since it's not a legal definition, each certifying body (of which there are a considerable number) is free to come up with their own. And they do.

Not that kind of "organic", apparently
But after going through the ones that are available online (I couldn't be arsed to try and track down the ones that aren't, but feel free to do so if you like), I've come up with what seems to be a fair synthesis of what they put forward (I encourage you to check my work here, and see if I got it wrong):

Organic food is produced according to organic farming methods. These methods are intended to:

  1. Increase the biological diversity of the agricultural system
  2. Improve the biological activity and long-term fertility of the soil
  3. Rely on renewable resources (like recycling plant and animal waste)
  4. Minimise pollution
  5. Steer clear of processing methods that alter the food in any substantial way.
  6. Avoid use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

Now that all sounds pretty reasonable, doesn't it? I mean who doesn't want to increase biodiversity or minimise pollution? (Although the "animal waste" bit is not cool... poo-flavoured organic bananas! Yum!).

The fifth and sixth points seem a bit silly to me, but that could just be my pro-science and pro-progress bias talking. It should be noted that pasteurising milk or milling wheat would render that milk or wheat uncertifiable by most organic standards. Heaven forbid we should apply such cutting edge, modern technology to our food!

The unstated major premise with all of this is that organic farming methods somehow achieve these ideals, whereas conventional farming methods do not. Brian Dunning's done a much better job of explaining why that's not the case than I could, so I suggest popping over there for a bit before carrying on here.

Back? Okay.

In addition to the above definition (which, frankly, is more of a mission statement than a technical definition) the various certifying bodies list endless pages of specific practices that they require farmers to adhere to in order to be certified. Without a degree in agricultural engineering, I can't really parse them effectively, which is, in itself, a bit of a problem. If I, a scientifically minded, fairly bright person, can't tell if organic farming practices are really healthier, more eco-friendly or otherwise superior to conventional farming methods, how is an average consumer supposed to tell the difference?

I'm kinda forced to rely on the synthesised opinions of other sources who I've grown to trust (largely), and substitute their better-formed opinions for my own. Given that, at least superficially, South African organic standards seem to closely resemble American ones, I'm going to stick with my initial assessment: it's just a bogus marketing label designed to attract first-world consumers. It confers no benefit to the consumer in terms of quality of the food (either the flavour or nutritional content), and is actually worse for the environment than conventional methods, due to it's relatively low yield.

Okay, that's sorted. Now let's look at:

Free Range

It's a lovely term, isn't it? It conjures up images of really chilled cows, hanging out in lush, green meadows, calmly chewing on juicy grass, enjoying the sunshine.

Free range?

Again, there's no legal definition. And even with my excellent Google-fu (applied over almost an entire minute of arduous searching), I wasn't able to track down a single Free Range certification body in South Africa. If they exist, they're not making themselves easy to find. It seems the only body in SA with a real interest in using the term "free range" is the South African Poultry Association (SAPA).

Their definition of free-range farming is:

  1. Chickens are provided with fresh water and the appropriate feed.
  2. They're given adequate shelter
  3. They're given veterinary care
  4. They have enough space to be themselves (I kid you not - their wording is "Allowing for the freedom to express natural behavior by providing sufficient space in suitable facilities and the company of the animals own kind.")
  5. They're protected from fear and distress

As far as I can glean from the handful of related sources, "free range" refers to a kind of animal farming that is supposed to be the antithesis of "factory farming". Both are nebulously defined, and no clear guidelines are given about how any of those things should be achieved. Once again, we're looking at a mission statement, rather than a technical definition.

As far as I can tell, if you had a one square meter pen with ten chickens in it, inside a warehouse, with a sufficient supply of water and antibiotic-laced feed, that should satisfy the requirements. How is that different to "factory farming"?

(Note: I can't say that that's what the poultry farmers are actually doing, but the "free range" label on your egg carton doesn't tell you that they aren't. That's my point.)

When it comes to other kinds of livestock, the South African Feedlot Association (SAFA) outlines an extensive list of criteria for the ethical treatment of animals which is equally flowery and vague, but at least they decline to apply the apparently meaningless marketing label "free range" to its adherents.


As I expected going into this investigation, "organic" and "free range" are silly marketing buzz-words designed to part you from your hard-earned money. Buy those products if you want, but do so knowing that you'll be paying an extra R2 (or whatever) per dozen eggs for absolutely no reason.

I haven't looked into it yet, but I'd be willing to bet money that the related terms "grain-fed", "biodynamic" and "barn" are equally meaningless. Hit me up in the comments if you've looked into those ones.

And just because no post of mine would be complete without one, here's a lolcat: