The organic trade in Singapore is taking off. What used to be a niche market has since picked up. Today, Singapore’s supermarkets, shops and even wet markets have been expanding their organic food selection to meet the demand for healthier and eco-friendly products.
However, is it really true that organic food is healthier than non-organic food? And what makes a product “organic”?
Here are the six important questions you should be asking before jumping on the organic bandwagon:
1. What does “organic” mean?
The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) does not have a definition of organic foods in Singapore. The regulations also vary from country to country.
However, organic food and drink generally refer to products that are made in compliance with organic standards in Singapore, meaning that they are:
- Grown naturally without the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides; and
- Not modified or processed using synthetic products and additives.
Grown with natural fertilizers (manure, compost).
Grown with synthetic or chemical fertilizers.
Weeds are controlled naturally (crop rotation, hand weeding, mulching, and tilling).
Weeds are controlled with chemical herbicides.
Pests are controlled using natural methods (birds, insects, traps) and naturally-derived pesticides.
Pests are controlled with synthetic pesticides.
Organic meat, dairy, eggs:
Conventionally-raised meat, dairy, eggs
Livestock is given all organic, hormone- and GMO-free feed.
Livestock is given growth hormones for faster growth, as well as non-organic, GMO feed.
Diseases are prevented with natural methods such as clean housing, rotational grazing, and a healthy diet.
Antibiotics and medications are used to prevent livestock disease.
Livestock must have access to the outdoors.
Livestock may or may not have access to the outdoors.
2. Are there any locally produced organic foods in Singapore?
Singapore still imports almost all its organic foods. Due to the land constraints, there are very little grown-locally organic foods in Singapore.
In 2017, Singapore launched its first organic standard – the SS 632. It is believed to be the world’s first organic standard for produce grown in urban and indoor conditions. Naturally, the SS 632 was tailored to Singapore’s urban farm settings. It was supported by the Singapore Manufacturing Federation — Standards Development Organisation (SMF-SDO).
On 11 June 2019, Sky Greens in Lim Chu Kang, became Singapore’s first farm to receive the SS 632 certification. The farm grows a range of green vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, spinach, kai lan and kang kong.
With a national standard being implemented, Singaporeans can expect to see more organic foods in Singapore.
3. Who checks on claims of organic foods in Singapore?
The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) does the checking. The agency adopts the Codex guidelines – established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission – for the production, processing, labelling and marketing of organically produced foods.
This commission is an international food standard-setting body established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation.
Local businesses that sell food products claiming to be “organic”, “organically produced”, or making other similar claims, must be able to show proof that their products have indeed been organically produced.
This proof would be a valid organic certificate for the product issued by a recognised body for organic food certification. The certifying body must adopt the Codex guidelines or similar standards for organically produced food.
Local importers and retailers of organic products, and local farms producing organic foods in Singapore are required to show the original organic certificate when required by SFA, for verification.
According to Dr Wong Kwok Onn, the Director of SFA’s Food Regulatory Management Division Regulatory Standards Department, enforcement action will be taken if any product is found to be falsely labelled as “organic”.
4. What are the benefits of organic foods?
Eating organic foods is not just a fad, it is here to stay. Let’s take a quick look at 4 science-backed organic food benefits below:
Fact #1: Fewer pesticides and heavy metals
Fruits, vegetables and grains labelled organic are grown without the use of most synthetic pesticides or artificial fertilizers. Although these man-made chemicals have been deemed safe in the quantities used for conventional farming, health experts still warn about the potential harms of repeated exposure.
For example, the commonly used herbicide Roundup has been classified as a “probable human carcinogen,” and the insecticide chlorpyrifos has been associated with developmental delays in infants. Studies have also suggested that pesticide residues—at levels commonly found in the urine of kids in the U.S.—may contribute to ADHD prevalence; they’ve also been linked to reduced sperm quality in men.
A 2014 meta-analysis in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organically grown crops were likely to contain detectable levels of pesticides. They are also 48% less likely to test positive for cadmium, a toxic heavy metal that accumulates in the liver and kidneys due to the differences in fertilization technique.
Fact #2: More healthy fats
The American Heart Association maintain that eating saturated fat from any source increases the risk of heart disease. Organic meat and milk can have about 50% more omega-3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated healthy fat, than conventionally produced products, according to a 2016 study in the British Journal of Nutrition. Organic milk tested in the study also had less saturated fat than non-organic.
The study’s authors cited the way organic livestock is raised, with a grass-fed diet and more time spent outdoors, as reasons for the higher omega-3 fatty acids. By switching to organic products, consumers can increase their omega-3 intake without increasing overall calories or saturated fat.
Fact #3: No antibiotics or synthetic hormones
Conventional livestock can be fed antibiotics to protect against illness, making it easier for farmers to raise animals in crowded or unsanitary conditions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limited the use of certain antibiotics for livestock in 2017, but loopholes in the legislation still exist. And with the exception of poultry, conventionally raised animals can also be injected with synthetic growth hormones, so they’ll gain weight faster or produce more milk.
However, traces of these substances can make their way to consumers, says Rolf Halden, professor and director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University. Drug residue is believed to contribute to widespread antibiotic resistance, he says, and organic foods—which are produced without antibiotics—“are intrinsically safer in this respect.” Organic meat and dairy also cannot contain synthetic hormones, which have been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
Fact #4: More antioxidants, in some cases
In a recent six-year study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers found that organic onions had about a 20% higher antioxidant content than conventionally grown onions. They also theorized that previous analyses—several of which have found no difference in conventional versus organic antioxidant levels—may have been thwarted by too-short study periods and confounding variables like weather.
The research was “very well done,” says Guy Crosby, adjunct associate professor of Nutrition at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. However, he also points out that this specific study “takes just one aspect of phytochemicals and shows they can be improved under organic conditions.” The question of whether organic foods are truly more nutritious is still debatable, he adds. “Had the researchers chosen to measure a different vitamin or mineral, they may have found a different result.”
5. Are organic foods environmentally friendly?
The environmental benefits of organic foods are well-documented. Organic farming is widely considered to be a far more sustainable alternative to conventional farming. It reduces the environmental pollution of water, air and soil. The lack of pesticides and a wider variety of plants enhances biodiversity. This translates into better soil quality and reduced pollution from fertilizer or pesticide run-off.
According to Dr Andrew Smith from the Rodale Institute, promoting soil biological diversity will also result in greater stores of carbon and nitrogen in the soil. Long-term, more carbon is stored in the soil in organic systems, and the need for external inputs is reduced.
6. What are the common misconceptions about organic foods?
Like any trending topic on the media, you can expect a few misconceptions flying around indiscriminately. Here are five misconceptions that people have regarding organic foods:
Myth #1: Organic foods are no healthier than conventional foods
Since the pesticide content in organic foods are considerably low, they are better for health than conventional food. While research indicates that the nutrient value is not significantly higher sans more healthy fats and antioxidants, it is still good to cut down on chemical intake via food.
Myth 2: Organic foods are too expensive
Organic foods definitely cost more than conventional ones. Why? They require more labour and care since the farmers do not use pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or drugs. Organic certification is expensive and organic feed for animals can cost twice as much. Organic farms tend to be smaller than conventional farms. Fixed costs and overhead must also be distributed across smaller produce volumes without government subsidies.
However, this is not always the case.
It also depends on the food item and the seller. Additionally, organic foods will protect you from several health issues caused by chemicals, thereby cutting down on your medical expenses. And we all know how exorbitant healthcare can get!
Hence, in the long run, you could argue that organic foods will end up being more cost-effective and beneficial.
Myth 3: Pesticides don’t do much damage
Pesticides are chemical substances made to kill living organisms that can damage the crop. But this effect doesn’t stop midway in the food chain. It goes all the way to the end – into our digestive systems – and its accumulation can cause several health problems. Pesticides also add to the increasing pollution levels in the environment.
Myth 4: Only small or local organic farmers are trustworthy
Some big organic companies can produce equally, if not more, organic food. Big organic companies have better production methods and more resources, which contribute to a more economical process.
In fact, these ‘big’ companies would have actually started as small farms that grew over the period and emerged successfully!
Myth 5: Organic foods are not very different from conventional food
Organic and conventional food differ in many aspects. From the growing to the processing stage, the components used are different. Organic food does not allow the use of toxic pesticides, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, and artificial growth hormones, which otherwise have no restrictions in the production of conventional food. This is why organic foods come with a separate label and certification.
You are what you eat. While the nutrient value of organic foods may not be significantly higher than conventional ones, they most definitely contain fewer pesticides and heavy metals. Besides bearing cleaner produces, organic farming is also a far more sustainable alternative to conventional farming.
Perhaps its time to go organic now, your body might thank you later!
HelpGuide (Organic Foods: What You Need to Know)
The Straits Times (Certificate required to prove food is organic)
Time Magazine (4 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Eating Organic)
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