Just how green are organic products? | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 12.02.2014
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Just how green are organic products?

Germany's biggest organic trade fair, Biofach, has kicked off in Nuremberg, with thousands of food products on display. The organics market in Germany is booming. But, are the products really better than standard food?

The organics stamp on some food products in Germany assures consumers that the contents come from an organically-run farm.

"The main benefit of organic or eco-labels is that these terms are legally defined," says Andreas Winkler from German consumer organization Foodwatch. "You can be certain that a minimum organic food production standard has been reached. Further certification can even prove that tougher guidelines have been met."

Consumption up...

Organic food is experiencing mixed fortunes in Germany at the moment. On the one hand, demand for products is increasing.

"Germany is the second biggest market for organic foods with a turnover volume of over seven billion euros," says Hanns-Christoph Eiden, from Germany's Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE). "It's a really important market."

The term 'organic' implies that these products are healthier and more natural. Andreas Winkler from Foodwatch agrees that in some cases this is true.

"The European organic logo and the EU Eco-regulation guarantee that no pesticides are sprayed and that farmers will not use mineral-based fertilizer," Winkler told DW.

European organics regulations also stipulate that genetically engineered plants are not permitted for use in animal feed and the use of additives is also strictly controlled. Some 320 additives are allowed in conventional food products, there are fewer than 50 permitted for use in organic food, Winkler explains.

… production down

Organic farmer Franz Sautmann

Organic farming costs are higher, so the products also cost more

Despite climbing demand, there remains a shortage of organics producers in Germany. Only 7% of German farms are organic. The number of farmers that specialize in ecological farming is actually dropping because farmers are worried about the economics, says Eiden.

Land is expensive to lease and productions costs are high. At the same time, the willingness of consumers to pay extra for organics is not consistent.

There have also been scandals. A number of German organic farms have been accused of using animal feed from non-EU sources that fail to meet the bloc's standards. But according to the BLE, Germany now has 70 national organic certification methods, which match up or even surpass European standards.

Too many options?

Foodwatch says there may actually be too many organic certification labels. "There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of certification labels in the food industry," says Andreas Winkler. "The consumer in the supermarket is confused about which badge is serious and which is just a marketing gimmick."

The organization wants clearer labelling that explains the nutritional content, indicates where the product comes from and reveals whether genetically modified ingredients have been used.

Winkler argues that terms like "species-appropriate animal care" simply doesn't give the consumer enough information. On chicken farms, for example, male chicks are shredded or gassed almost immediately after birth, because they are not considered economically viable. Organic milk cows are also often kept in a type of permanent pregnancy in order to maintain milk production. These are also the sort of issues that consumers and experts will discuss at Biofach in Nuremberg over the next four days.

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