'Bio', 'eco' and organic food: what do these labels really mean?

"Natural" agriculture, "traditional" foods and healthier eating are booming. The stamps we see in supermarkets are "bio", "eco" and organic. But what differences do they have?

Which of them is "healthier"? Why are there various labels and how do you decide which one corresponds? In the end, stamps of this type are a purely administrative matter, and not so much the nature of their cultivation.

What are organic products?

According to the Ecological consultancy, the internal market for "eco" products billed some 1,686 million euros in 2018. Spain is currently the first country in the European Union in terms of organic agricultural production. In its "Strategy for Ecological Production 2018-2020", the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Food and the Environment has tried to promote this activity, ensuring the interests of farmers.

However, what is considered and what is not considered ecological? As we said, the question, in Europe at least, is modified by law. Specifically, by three regulations that we will name later. These mark what the "ecological" seal can get and what cannot. Anyone who complies with these regulations can apply for the organic seal. These are:

  • Regulation (EC) 834/2007, of the Council, on production and labeling of organic products.
  • Commission Regulation (EC) 889/2008, establishing provisions for the application of Regulation (EC) 834/2007 with respect to organic production, its labeling and control.
  • Commission Regulation (EC) 1235/2008 establishing the implementing provisions of Regulation (EC) 834/2007, as regards imports of organic products from other countries.
  • To this is added that from 2021, Regulation 848/2018 repeals Regulation 834/2007.

And what does the regulation say? In short, these have to be grown only with natural fertilizers, you cannot use pesticides for pest control and they cannot be genetically modified either. Among natural fertilizers, it is possible to use those products prepared in our own facilities, which are called biodynamic preparations. Nitrogen mineral fertilizers cannot be used and only soil that has previously been approved for ecological use can be used.

If all this is fulfilled, the farmer approaches an Ecological Agriculture Committee, which in Spain depends on each Autonomous Community and these certify, after paying the seal, the quality and ecological origin of the products. These committees are the last ones in charge of assuring the quality (according to their origin) of the food.

Bio, eco, organic, how are they different?

Once the seal is obtained, a product can display the organic food seal, in addition to the seal approved by the European Union. And how are they different from a food with the "bio" seal, or with the "eco" seal? Absolutely nothing. At a Spanish level, these denominations are synonymous and are regulated by the same regulations, as indicated in Royal Decree 1852/1993.

Likewise, and in addition to other indications that may be established by the Autonomous Communities, the following may also be used: "obtained without the use of synthetic chemicals", "biological", "organic", "biodynamic" and their respective Compound names, as well as the words "eco" and "bio", whether or not accompanied by the name of the product, its ingredients or trademark.

Therefore, these stamps indicate the same: its origin from organic farming as set out in Regulation (EC) 834/2007 and its subsequent laws. We insist that only foods that comply with the law, and that are approved by the committees, can carry any of these stamps and there is no difference between them.

In other countries this may vary slightly, but as long as they comply with regulations. Thus, bio foods, depending on the country, may be foods that have not been genetically altered or altered in a laboratory, but it does not mean that pesticides have not been used for their cultivation.

On the other hand, you can also see other stamps from private organizations and specific consortia, although always complying with the regulations. These other stamps can sometimes be seen in Spain due to the importation of products, but their characteristics are not regulated by the European Commission beyond the regulations. But in Spain, as we said, these stamps are synonyms.

The ecological can also be industrial

Curiously, given the legislation we find a case of "made the law, made the trap." All organic, bio, eco and organic products, etc., comply with the regulations, we do not question that, and if they do not, they have a problem. The question is more complex. The organic farming label, as presented, is intended to improve agricultural practices, promoting responsible cultivation with the environment and with health.

It is striking, therefore, that one of the places with the highest production of organic farming in Spain is Almería. And it is curious because it is made under thousands of square meters of plastic, under an intensive regime, exactly the same as with industrialized agriculture but complying with European regulations regarding pesticides and fertilizers. In short, we are talking about industrial ecological production, two terms that seem contrary, but are not.

What it can be is, precisely, the implications. For example, another curiosity is the import of organic fruit and vegetables, whose sale is more expensive, and its ecological impact is comparable, in the end, to that of industrial agriculture, as studies such as this show, an analysis carried out at the University of Aberdeen .

The perception of people, according to analyzes such as those carried out in Finland, whose reduced population serves as a sociological example, does not take into account the impact of organic food consumption, regardless of whether they are locally produced or imported. But one thing does not have to involve the other.

Greener than organic

Bio, eco, ecological, organic ... everything refers to the same issues: a seal awarded for complying with a regulation. A regulation that originally aims to ensure sustainable and healthier agriculture. However, with the law on the table, it seems that there are, at best, gaps.

For example, some studies carried out by the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, point out that the carbon footprint produced by the consumption of locally sourced organic vegetables could be much greater than expected from the premises accepted for being products. organic.

At the moment, there is strong evidence that organic agriculture, conventional industrialized agriculture and other integrated forms represent, in the medium term, the same carbon footprint. This puts us in an uncomfortable position since some products grown and managed in the traditional style, but without complying with the organic seal, may be more "organic" than organic foods themselves.

And what about health? Are "bio" and "eco" foods healthier? According to the analyzes to date, like this great review of more than 52,400 published articles, from 1958 to 2008, there are no important nutritional differences between foods considered organic and those produced in a conventional way. Nor are there systematic reviews that support a positive impact on health among consumers of this type of product.

Perhaps this is due to a failure in the analyzes. Or there may be no such results. At the moment, what is clear is that more research is needed to support the premises on which these labels emerged. Until it is verified, the eco, bio and organic labels will only serve to mark a more expensive product, which we could classify as "gourmet", but which does not fulfill the promises attributed to them.

Images | Victoria Perez, Santiago Campillo, Wikimedia, Unsplash

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