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Organic farming: The secrets of the soil

By Brigid Delaney
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Suddenly it seems organic is everywhere.

Restaurants trumpet that they use free range eggs for their breakfast, organic cuts of meat are displayed proudly in the supermarket and health pundits are lining up to tell us organic food is the best for our health.

But what is it and how does it differ from mainstream farming? And is it worth the extra money it sometimes costs to buy organic produce?

What is it?

Organic farming involves the exclusion of certain, though not all, synthetic inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and feed.

In the U.S. and most of Europe, what is organic farming is defined by law, so farmers in these countries are unable to define themselves as organic unless they abide by certain prescribed farming methods.

As well as excluding certain chemicals, many organic farmers allow animals a greater amount of space to roam, have outdoor grazing, more gentle birthing methods, extending the life span of the animals and lactation periods, slaughtering the animal humanely and hanging the meat of the animal for a reasonable amount of time after it has been killed.

CNN was at the Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales last weekend, and we spoke to Peter Melchett, farmer and policy director of the Soil Association about what is involved in organic farming.

"There's more to it then just going back to the past. We've had the farm in Norfolk (east England) since 1958. Organic was a slow dawning. In the 80's we tried all sorts of things to get the native birds back that had been disappearing from the land. We tried not spraying the edges of fields but it didn't do the trick. It was only when we experimented with organic methods of farming that the wildlife returned."

What type of organic methods do you use?

"Here animals are eating in many meadows with 20 or 30 different types of grass. They choose what they eat. They're born naturally without having to be yanked out so there is good welfare. Cows will live typically for 2 yrs as opposed to 14 to 18 months. Meat is hung for three weeks. The meat has more unsaturated fats and less saturated fats which is ultimately better for the consumer."

Why should people buy organic?

"If you are concerned about your or your children's health, about the way animals are treated, concerned about the welfare of people doing the farming and concerned about the future of the planet you should buy organic food. Peter Singer (Princeton based ethicist and author) has been talking about the connection between climate change and animal welfare. They are closely linked. Industrialization is terrible for the animals, the animals are fed very energy enriched diets. The book and film "Fast Food Nation" has drawn attention to this and there the quality of the meat is terrible. These animals just eat grain."

How popular is organic food becoming?

"The boss of Tesco (the UK's largest supermarket chain) said the other day when he announced that sales had increased, that 39 percent of all Tesco customers are buying organic. Asda (another popular supermarket chain) had between 500 and 1000 lines of organic food on the shelves last year.

It's not just a middle class thing. In the UK and the U.S. people on lower incomes eat the most expensive processed takeaways. It's not a good deal for consumers, for their health or for their pockets."

How are farmers adapting to organic production?

"There is resistance from some farmers as some have been using pesticides all their life and there are farmers who are both organic and non-organic. But I'm optimistic things will change really fast and organic will be a widely accepted type of food to consume and a popular farming method."

How to go organic

Order a vegetable box on-line and get a fresh box of vegetables delivered to your house each week.

Visit your local health food store and have a chat about some products that you can try that won't involve too much change to your diet, too soon.

Avoid traditional fast foods and find a new breed of convenience shops such as Leon where the takeaway meals are prepared with organic and seasonal ingredients.

Avoid food that has to be flown halfway across the globe. This is bad for the environment.

Eat food that is fresh, seasonal, and close to the source.

Take a trip to the country and try produce from the farm gate.

Avoid expensive processed takeaway food, instead plough the extra money into organic cuts of meat from the supermarket.

Experiment with growing your own fruits and vegetables.

Go wild mushroom or berry picking and enjoy a feast that night with fresh ingredients that you've picked yourself.


A free pig is a happy pig

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