Whenever we discuss food shopping with friends, someone asks, “How bio (organic) is ‘'Bio'’ (the label)?” Swiss ask this question almost as often as expats do. It usually arises from misunderstandings about food labeling, reluctance to pay more for bio foods unless the buyer trusts the label, or lack of understanding of the importance of organic farming for our health and the protection of Earth’s dwindling farmlands.
Organic farming and Swiss food labels
Let’s start with the standards for a Swiss Bio food label. The Swiss federal government’s requirements for bio certification are documented in its legislation on organic farming and labeling (SR 910.18 Art. 3). No Swiss food product can qualify for the Bio (or Öko/Natürlich) label without meeting federal requirements, which include: (1) reliance on nature’s systems and processes—including natural diversity, (2) announced and unannounced inspections, (3) no use of genetically modified organisms, (4) no use of ionizing radiation, (5) no irradiation of the product, and (6) no use of chemical-synthetic products, such as fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. A similar but not identical condensed English version is on the non-governmental Bio Suisse (Bio Knospe) website.
For shoppers who want help selecting the best organic foods, the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), the Schweizer Konsumentenschutz (Swiss Consumer Protection) and the Schweizer Tierschutz (Swiss Animal Protection) organizations updated their shopper’s guide last autumn. From dark green (best) to orange (better than no label) categories, it lists labels and logos for food products generally available in Swiss stores. These ratings, however, are not just about organic food. They also reflect Fair Trade (social justice) and animal protection criteria. A product can be organic without meeting the highest criteria of the other two rating categories.
Switzerland is small and imports EU label organic products. The legal criteria for the official EU label do not currently include live animal transport and are less strict or lack criteria for biodiversity, water use and social justice. Within the EU, German Bio products are generally the most reliable, and German Bio products in the Lebensmittel Labels guide’s dark green category are excellent.
Why buy bio?
While organically produced foods generally do cost more, bio product consumers say these foods (a) generally taste better and (b) go farther. How something tastes is an individual experience, but for many of us who are familiar with the flavor of real food, bio products are the taste of home. Any time I taste a fully ripened apricot, it reminds me of my father’s garden.
Total cost is not determined by price alone, as an informal study a friend described to me demonstrates. Her students at Zurich’s ETH decided to test the cost-effectiveness of organic foods. A living group pooled its resources and ate strictly bio for several weeks. They found they had saved money and explained that organic foods were more satisfying. And they treated the entire class to homemade cookies. Many studies have been made about the nutritional value of organic vs. conventionally grown foods. Conclusive scientific data about this nutritional controversy are still lacking. Nature is infinitely more complex and multifaceted than scientific studies, which focus on parts and cannot include the total food product. A test for Vitamin C says little about other nutrients, for example. But most studies agree that food without chemical residues is better for us, even if organic apples don’t look as perfect as Snow White’s stepmother’s did.
Perhaps the most persuasive information has to do with agricultural lands. These are decreasing due to drought, erosion, pollution, growth of cities and other influences. The 2008 IAASTD report (approved by governments of 60 countries and produced by an international agricultural study group similar to the International Panel on Climate) states “…increasing use of chemicals and industrialization, as well as lack of training and research into sustainable agricultural methods, have led to an increase in the overuse of natural resources and soil infertility.” If we want to be able to feed the world’s growing population on rapidly dwindling agricultural land, we must make serious investments in the health of our soil. The best investment we consumers can make is to promote organic farming by buying certified organic foods and by supporting organizations such as Biovision, which help small farmers in developing countries live well by using environmentally sound farming methods.
How bio is “Bio”? Our planet’s life-support systems all operate by natural methods. Bio farmers work for the well-being and sustainability of Earth.