Satisfy your appetite for natural products

As Organic Week begins, Sanjida O'Connell explores the wide range of organic goods and services now available in the UK - from food and drink, to holidays and even clothing
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Roy Cook has opened his doors to the public. He's offering guided tours of his vineyard, a woodland nature trail and wine tasting, which includes Cuvée Pinot Noir Rosé, a pink bubbly with strawberry fruit flavours, black cherry, sparkling elderflower and apple wines. Sedlescombe vineyard (01580 830 715) was the first organic wine producer in this country, and free winetasting is just one of many events held throughout the country in celebration of the Soil Association's Organic Week, which runs from tomorrow until 12 October.

Roy Cook has opened his doors to the public. He's offering guided tours of his vineyard, a woodland nature trail and wine tasting, which includes Cuvée Pinot Noir Rosé, a pink bubbly with strawberry fruit flavours, black cherry, sparkling elderflower and apple wines. Sedlescombe vineyard (01580 830 715) was the first organic wine producer in this country, and free winetasting is just one of many events held throughout the country in celebration of the Soil Association's Organic Week, which runs from tomorrow until 12 October.

The sale of organic food has rocketed: according to the Soil Association's Food and Farming Report 2002, Britons spend around £920m a year on organic food - more than any other European country apart from Germany. Between 1990 and 2000 the organic market in Europe grew at a rate of 25 per cent a year, with an annual turnover of £6bn by April 2000. But what is organic produce, and why should we buy it?

"Organic farming delivers the highest-quality, best-tasting food, produced without artificial chemicals or genetic modification, and with respect for animal welfare and the environment, while helping to maintain the landscape and rural communities," is the definition advocated by the Prince of Wales, president of the Bristol-based Soil Association, the UK's largest promoter and certifier of organic food.

According to Tony Sullivan, Organic Trading Manager for Sainsbury's, the two most important reasons why his customers buy organic foods are "health and taste".

Although there is no conclusive proof, some claim that spraying with pesticides and herbicides pollutes food with harmful chemicals. A report produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has shown that a third of our fruit and vegetables are contaminated with pesticide residues: a Cox's apple may have been sprayed 16 times with up to 36 different kinds of chemicals.

"Traceability of meat is an important concern for me from a human consumption point of view," says Kathryn Francis, who with her partner Kurt Hilder runs a certified organic shop, Better for Organics, in Dursley, Gloucestershire (01453 545 090; www.betterfororganics.co.uk). "There has never been a case of BSE in organic meat," she adds. Meat, in particular, may be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant organisms such as salmonella. This is due to the routine addition of antibiotics given to livestock raised conventionally, even though a 1998 report by the House of Lords said the use of antibiotics in animal feed and "imprudent use" should be banned.

As well as potential health risks from eating non-organic food, organic food may be better for you. A study published in the scientific journal, Plantfoods for Human Nutrition, has shown that organic food contains more minerals, especially potassium, iron, magnesium as well as vitamin C.

Non-organic food is said to damage the environment: the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides decimates wildlife.

"I believe the soil will be unable to sustain crops for an indefinite amount of time with the increase in the use of pesticides and herbicides," says Francis. "It makes sense to approach farming sustainably."

Others claim that organic food, grown naturally, without recourse to chemicals, tastes better, although this is obviously hard to prove. Roy Cook gives the example of a blind wine tasting held by Robert Joseph, a leading wine writer. "We couldn't taste the difference between conventional and organic French wines," says Cook, "but I felt at the time - this was 15 years ago - that we had achieved something if organic wine could be comparative with conventional wine."

But how can you tell whether organic produce is really organic? The Soil Association and a number of other organisations certify produce according to a strict and legal definition and have the power to remove certification. Certification requires traceability showing exactly how the product has been treated from farm to table. Most manufacturers use the logo of the certification body, but there is also an EU certifier code number on the packaging (see page 4).

Sainsbury's has developed a traceability website at www.sainsburys.co.uk/ organic, which allows consumers to track produce back to the farm it came from.

"There is a dilemma here," says Henrietta Green, founder of the Food Lovers' Market (020-7644 0455; www.foodloversbritain.com). "You find that sometimes we're importing organic food, when we grow the same local food, not strictly organically, but in the right way."

Soil Association certification can take time and is expensive, hence Green's advocation of British food of the highest quality. "We wouldn't buy from a farmer down the road, much as we'd like to," says Kathryn Francis, "because we can't guarantee that they didn't spray their crops. There's got to be a line drawn somewhere, and the Soil Association does have high standards." However, in honour of Organic Week, Henrietta Green will include a number of certified organic producers at her market next Friday, such as Patisserie Organic, which sells specialities such as vegan, gluten and sugar-free banana and cashew cake with coconut and carob icing.

Organic food, once a niche product, can now be bought at supermarkets, in addition to specialist shops, fairs, festivals and farmers' markets, which now exist throughout the country (find the nearest one to you at www.farmersmarkets.net).

Groceries are not the only kind of organic produce. You can now eat out organically. One of the oldest organic restaurants in the country is the Watermill in Cumbria (01768 881523; www.organicmill.co.uk) which has been fully organic since it opened in 1975. Dating back to the 18th century, the mill still works traditionally, producing speciality breads and flours such as "miller's magic", a medieval mixture of wheat and rye, and a special blend that includes high-protein soya flour, sesame and sunflower seeds. One of the more popular meals at the café at the mill is the "miller's lunch" - a choice of six different breads served with Loch Arthur cheese from Dumfries, homemade chutney and locally grown salads.

In tandem with organic eateries, there has been a growth in organic hotels and B&Bs. Highdown Organic Farm (01392 881028; www.highdownfarm.co.uk), above the Culm Valley in Exeter, a 450-acre family-run organic dairy farm owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, provides accommodation in a 400-year-old converted cider barn and offers a complimentary pint of organic milk and six eggs from their organic chickens on your arrival. Fresh organic food can also be delivered.

One area of organics that is often overlooked is clothing. It is not known whether chemical residues remain in fibres produced conventionally, but people with sensitive skin and highly allergic babies often find organic cotton easier to wear, according to Abigail Garner. Garner is the founder of Gossypium (the botanical name for cotton), which has a store near Brighton and mail order catalogue selling casual clothing and yoga wear (0800 0856 549; www.gossypium.co.uk).

Garner spent two years in India fostering relationships with farmers. She buys her cotton from Agrocel, a network of organic cotton producers. "When we first took our cotton to the mill, they laughed at us - they thought we were social workers," she says. "But when we came back, the manager had a different smile on his face. He put two bobbins on the table and asked us if we could guess which one was ours. Ours was obvious, it was 10 times shinier and whiter."

Garner employs designers specifically trained to create garments from organic textiles. "We go that extra mile to design clothing that has a longer life, it's less seasonal and less fashion-dependent." Gossypium and other organic clothing manufacturers, such as the Devon-based company Green Fibres (01803 868001; www.greenfibres.com), could be accused of remaining in an elite niche market but, as Garner says, the clothing industry is global and few retailers can trace the fibres in their clothes back to the soil.

"It takes three square metres of soil and eight months to grow enough cotton to make a T-shirt," she says.

In spite of the difficulties, Gossypium is now getting set to go mainstream: a deal with Marks & Spencer is imminent. "We've got the farmers in the foreground," she says. "He's the one who's out there dealing with wind, rain and the bugs."

A full list of events taking place during Organic Week can be found at www.organicweek.org. The week starts with Organic Experience Weekend: more than 100 organic farms will hold tours, picnics, barbecues, as well as food and drink tastings

Comments