Certified organic defining the meaning and dispelling myths

Certified Organic, Spray free and everything in between…but what’s it all mean?

Apr 05, 2023


Good Harvest Organic Farm Certified Oraganic

With so many terms being thrown about in the world of organics and food production, it’s important to talk about the range of growing methods, the regulation of specific terms (or lack thereof), and how you can determine what fits your values when it comes to feeding your family.

Broadly, there are a number of “growing methods” identified when it comes to fresh produce, including: Certified Organic, organic, spray free, pesticide free, chemical free, biodynamic, unlabelled (e.g. conventionally grown), and even ambiguous terms like eco grown.

There are a few challenges with the labelling of produce and products especially here in Australia.

“Australia is misaligned with global standards and is officially the last developed nation in the world to not have an enforced domestic standard for the use of the word “organic” (Australian Organic Limited).

Shocking isn’t it! So essentially, anyone can call a product organic, even if it’s full of chemicals and grown conventionally. They can even use the term organic in their business of product name freely. No wonder everyone is confused!

So, what does organic really mean anyway, and how can you make sense of this confusion to get the safest foods for you and your family?

The word “organic” refers to the way agricultural products such as fruit, vegetables and grain, are grown and processed. Organic food production is based on a system of natural farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic, persistent pesticides or synthetic fertilisers and prohibits genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (Australian Organic, 2023).

Organic produce is grown in a way that connects people, produce and planet. It respects and supports the natural cycles of the land, soil, air and water. It starts with the use of non GMO seeds, microbial support and cover cropping to help fertilise the soil, through farming methods including; no/low till, crop rotation and companion planting, compost and organic amendments (seaweed and compost teas), as well as the use of beneficial insects. Post harvest, produce is not treated with chemicals to prevent spoilage, nor covered with waxes or other treatments for purely aesthetic reasons.

Sounds great doesn’t it! Given organic is truly the best practice, then Certified Organic is the gold standard of produce. Certified Organic farms and food manufacturers in Australia are monitored under one of the strictest food regulatory programs in the world.

With Certified Organic produce you have assurance that the produce is grown to a strict set of guidelines and certification rules including the National Standard for Organic and Bio-dynamic Produce (required for export) or the Australian Certified Organic Standard (ACOS).

Produce and products that are Certified Organic are required to undergo annual audits and provide detailed information to the certifying body regarding their inputs, seed sources, and also traceability and volume assessments (this means they can’t say they are growing an organic product (e.g. ginger) and then source and sell non organic ginger).

It's for these reasons that our Good Harvest farms are Certified Organic and have been since 2018.

Biodynamic production also works within the National Standard for Organic and Bio-dynamic Produce and can be certified as Demeter Biodynamic, which means the produce is grown in the same way as certified organic, with some strict regulations regarding the soil structure, soil humus, and ability for the farm to self-sustain and operate as a closed unit, generating its own inputs and supporting the plants to feed themselves according to nature.  

Certified In-Conversion

Primary producers go through three stages to becoming organic. In-conversion is the status given to producers when they are in the second year of converting to organic and when some start marketing their product as organic but don’t have full A grade status yet.

The key sections are:

  • Stage 1: Precertification
    precertified products produced during the first year of converting to organic cannot bear reference to being
    certified organic or use a certification body’s logo
  • Stage 2: In-conversion
    in-conversion requires a minimum of 12, and up to 24 months
  • Stage 3: Certified organic (A grade)
    full certification status, also referred to as A grade, requires a minimum prior period of three years

If a product is not labelled as Certified Organic, it is open for ambiguity and interpretation in terms of the chemicals and inputs used on and in the product. This is where it’s even more critical to have a relationship with the people growing and selling you produce.

Usage of the term “organic” indicates that it probably is grown to the same methods as a Certified Organic product, but that the farmer has chosen not to get certified. For some farmers they cite costs, paperwork, and a host of other reasons why they won’t certify. For our 79 year old apple farmer, even though he is essentially growing organically, it’s just too much paperwork for him to get certified given he is so close to retirement.

If you come across produce that is labelled organic – it’s important to ask more questions about the growing methods and the farm it’s sourced from.

It’s the same, if not more so when a product is labelled “spray free/pesticide free”.

The terms “pesticide-free” and “spray free” are often used interchangeably and can be misleading. For example, if something is labelled “spray-free”, the fruit or crop may have been spared from being sprayed with a chemical pesticide, but the soil and surrounds may be sprayed.

If something is labelled “pesticide-free”, a farmer may not have used synthetic herbicides or insecticides but may have used genetically modified plants or seeds. 

These terms are honestly just a bit too confusing! Couple this with the fact literally anyone can source produce, say from the big markets in Brisbane, and then re-sell it as “spray free” with no certification or verification, it makes buying safe produce more difficult.

Conventional Growing (produce that is not labelled)

Conventional produce is most of the produce that you find in supermarkets or at green grocers. Side note: don’t get me started on super cheap 39c lettuces you see spruiked at fruit and veg shops! Can you imagine how much the farmer is getting for that product? It’s in the ground for 6 or so weeks, and they have to do everything including harvesting and delivering it and be paid much less than 39c per head?

Conventional growing is a type of farming that uses things like synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers to maximise yield. In some cases, they will also use genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Conventional farming tends to be on a larger scale and require a lot of machinery which means compaction of soils, less beneficial organisms and poor crop health.

Conventional also tends to be more detrimental to the environment, thanks to chemical run-off, intensive farming methods and greenhouse gas production.

This is the great mystery regarding conventional produce, shouldn’t a product that is grown WITH chemicals bear the burden of being labelled as such? Like a cigarette packet warning, if people were reminded of the fact their salad was sprayed with a whole lot of chemicals, perhaps we would encourage more and more farmers to convert their practices to certified organic. 

So how do you navigate these labels when it comes to feeding your family?

Let’s keep it simple:

  1. Always choose certified organic – it’s the safest option – for a fully list of organic producers you can look up the various certification bodies including ACO, OFC, SXC, NASAA, or jump online to the Bud Club and check out their resources.
  1. Know your farmer, know your food – easiest way to get assurance, know who is growing your food, visit their farm, develop a relationship with them.
  1. Ask questions about produce including how and where it is grown – transparency is key, a product should be labelled accordingly – you have a right to know the growing method. 
  1. Be clear on your own personal values – maybe eating 100% organic is not your goal or doesn’t suit your needs. Get clear on what you value and use that to make purchasing decisions accordingly.

What about Good Harvest produce?

As mentioned, our farms at Woombye are certified organic with the Organic Food Chain – OFC0823. We also work with a whole range of other organic producers. The majority of produce we sell is certified organic. There are some growers we work with intermittently that are “spray free”. These items will be labelled accordingly. These include some citrus (April to September), Mushrooms, and some leafy greens from our friends at Mini Farm in Brisbane.  Our Mushrooms are currently not organic – there is only one good certified organic mushroom grower in Australia so demand and price is high.

Our priority is ALWAYS certified organic first! We spend time each week to ensure our market and website signage is up to date so you can make the best choices when it comes to you and your family.

We encourage you to ask questions and get in touch if you need more info.

Finally, a quick note about seasonality and organics – it’s usually a good sign that something isn’t organic, if it is available when the organic counterpart isn’t. This means that they are using chemicals to grow outside of the usual season.

For more on seasonal produce, check out our seasonal guide here: https://www.goodharvest.com.au/blogs/news/eating-seasonally-for-you-and-your-family