Georg Schweisfurth, Udo Pollmer
Patrick Illinger, Simon Tress
Alexander Gerber

How "organic" is organic food?

Dialogue forum on 25 March 2014

Pesticide-laden tomatoes, stretched olive oil, excessive antibiotics in meat – in the wake of food scandals in the past, the boom in organic products remains unbroken. But how good is organic really? A question that led to heated discussions between Demeter CEO Dr. Alexander Gerber, food chemist Udo Pollmer, eco-pioneer Georg Schweisfurth and organic restaurant owner Simon Tress on the third dialogue forum evening in 2014.

According to EU information, the market for organic produce has quadrupled over the past ten years. The commission is striving to fortify consumer confidence in organic products with more stringent regulations. "If the agricultural system had not become more and more industrialised in recent decades, we wouldn't need an organic seal today at all", claims Georg Schweisfurth, whose father founded the Hermannsdorfer ecological farming workshops almost 30 years ago. Today, thanks to the organic regulations, many businesses pay greater attention to animal welfare than before. This, he added critically, is more than necessary, because "what is going on in conventional animal husbandry is not species appropriate".

Ecological agriculture provides the right answers
Demeter, the oldest organic association in Germany, has also dedicated itself to a holistic form of land cultivation. "This is necessary for one simple reason", explained Demeter CEO, Dr. Alexander Gerber. "Scientists have established that the limits for the climate,  the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity have been reached and that agriculture has largely contributed to this." Agrarian business has increasingly deteriorated into a pure input-output system and has completely lost track of the fact that it has something to do with living organisms." Gerber is therefore convinced that "we will either live on ecological food in the future or not at all."  Ecological agriculture is the right answer, he says, because it works resource-efficiently, avoids erosion and applies high standards of animal aesthetics.

"The organic scene raised the right questions at the right time back in the early 80s", admitted food chemist Udo Pollmer. Today, however, many things are exaggerated by the press, even though food and the environment are much less contaminated than in those days. Moreover, "organic" is far from being what the associations claim it is. As a scientist who analyses data, Pollmer considers a lot of methods practised by the organic farmers to be questionable. "Fruit, for example, is sprayed more often than in conventional cultivation because in contrast to modern pesticides, the chemicals used do not work properly." It should not be forgotten, he observed, that organic pesticides also have adverse effects on the environment. Organic animal husbandry is also not without controversy and the problem of excessive nitrates in arable farming has been solved anyway. "Today, conventional farming manages with much less fertiliser, so that in some waters there is not enough food for the fish." Pollmer considers one major weakness of organic agriculture to be the yield, which is approximately half in size per hectare. "If we change everything to organic, we will need a second globe in the boot."
Organic as a question of taste
"It is true that we have lower yields from organic farming in central Europe", agreed Gerber. But on a global scale, things are quite the opposite. The extremely sensitive locations in the southern countries, where food shortages and hunger dominate, can achieve better harvests with ecological cultivation systems such as composting. For Schweisfurth, too, there is no doubt: "If we had sustainable systems we could feed many more people."

Restaurant owner and chef Simon Tress knows that organic products taste better from experience. If the animals are given the time they need to grow, for example, this has an effect on the taste. "A conventionally raised cow is slaughtered after 12 to 15 months, an organic cow lives 24 to 26 months. For chickens, the ratio is approximately 30 to 70 days", he pointed out. The consumers are absolutely prepared to pay a higher price for this, he said. A flexitarian who does not eat meat more than twice a week can afford this higher level of quality.
"Organic food tastes better because the products are more natural", Gerber went on to say. However, this depends on different factors such as the variety used, soil, climate and naturally also the skills of the farmer. For this reason there are also conventional products that taste better than organic products. However, for him the enjoyment of eating is more than just the constituents contained in the food. "It depends on how animals are kept or how products are generated."

People's habits decisive
"Whether organic food tastes better is a philosophical question", countered Pollmer. He cited studies in which consumers almost always chose the conventional products. "This depends on people's expectations and habits, and on the freshness of the products. If the organic food shop doesn't have a big turnover, the products remain longer on the shelves and therefore have more flavour."

Organic products may contain fewer pesticides but better constituents cannot be proven scientifically. For Schweisfurth this is no reason to shun organic foods as a consumer: you have to see the big picture and not just pick out single points as a basis for judgement. Even if sporadic cases of fraudulent organic products do occur, this is no reason to discredit the whole industry. Everything declared as an organic product on the market must comply with the EU directive at the very least. Quality differences between the different organic seals do exist. Still: "The organic path is the right one, even if only 50 to 60 per cent of what is possible is achieved due to the EU regulations. We should not destroy what is good by singling out trivialities."

You are what you eat
For Pollmer, the greatest  achievement of the organic industry was that it brought about changes in agriculture. "The conventional farmers have adopted those methods of the organic farmers that work." He sees the future in using the best and most suitable methods of both directions. In contrast to this, Gerber cannot recognise any substantial changes in conventional farming practices. "We still have an excess of 110 kilograms nitrogen per hectare on average, and animal husbandry in the mass production enterprises is practised in a way that is not befitting for our society." Every step that a conventional farmer takes towards sustainability and ecology is welcome. "The conventional farmers are the organic farmers of the future. We would be idiotic not to seek dialogue with our colleagues." 

Ultimately, everyone must decide for themselves which path they want to take. The saying "You are what you eat" is certainly a good guideline for orientation.

The next forum, entitled “Starved  and stuffed – are we eating ourselves sick”, will take place on 3 April 2014.  

CB, 08. April 2014