Chefs discuss what 'organic food' really means
Eating organic has become a way of life for many. But what does the term actually mean, and is organic produce any healthier? Janice Leung Hayes discovers that the answers are far from clear
In case you hadn't noticed, much of the Western world is in the midst of an organic revolution. "Organic" has become a byword for everything that's good about food and people are willing to pay a premium to get it. Most people think organic food is healthier; many believe it tastes better, but few are able to define exactly what it is.
Jeremy Biasiol, culinary director at IPC Foodlab, a farm-to-table restaurant, says: "Organic means everything and [it] means nothing. It's mostly marketing.
"As a chef, the most important thing for me is to know where the food comes from - the traceability. You see many restaurants saying they are organic but you look in the kitchen and they're not really doing it, maybe a vegetable here or a piece of chicken there."
Biasiol sources most of the restaurants' vegetables from local farms, as well as growing herbs at the Fanling branch.
"Whatever we cook here, we know exactly how the farmer is growing their things. We ask for a lot of information, we have a lot of people [who will] go [to the source] and check," he says.
While this approach is possible for IPC Foodlab, it isn't always feasible for a large hotel such as The Ritz-Carlton, which needs a much larger quantity of products than local farms are able to supply.
Peter Find, the hotel's executive chef, says it's is important to look beyond the label. "You can buy a lot of things with labels like organic, sustainable and hydroponic, but [sometimes] the quality is not there. It tastes different. We look at flavour and texture of the product and the consistency of what we buy."
"When we wanted to start using more organic ingredients, we had to secure the supply chain, because we're buying it [consistently] over a long period of time," says Find. As a result, they need to ask additional questions and investigate the sources further.
"We do research into the company and ask, 'What is their history?' It's easy to put something nice on the flyer, [but] we also have to make sure they have the knowledge to do things properly," he says.
According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, the principle of organic farming "relies on ecological management and produces crops in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner; no chemical pesticides and fertilisers [sic] or genetically engineered materials are used; works in harmony with nature and preserves biological diversity; adopts organic practices to manage pests and maintain soil fertility".
For advocates the term organic also implies eating seasonally.
"We have a core group of ingredients, but the fruits and vegetables don't have to be the same every week," Find says.
"It's natural to work with the seasons and we're happy to be able to offer dishes that aren't exactly the same all the time."
There is, however, no legislation in Hong Kong defining the term organic. While there are detailed standards required of food processors and farms that include good farming practices, there are none for restaurants that call themselves organic or introduce items labelled organic on their menus.
The "organic" label" isn't all bad, according to Biasiol, who says he still uses the word organic on the menu because "it is still a point of reference for the customers we've built up trust with".
Peggy Chan, owner and chef at Grassroots Pantry and Prune Deli and Workshop, says that consumers need to look beyond food safety and learn about the food system as a whole.
"It isn't just about the organic label. There are many layers to the issue that need to be dealt with. There's the social - if it's organic, is it also fairly traded? - and the political, too. For instance, government-run agencies, particularly in the United States, protect the rights of large companies."
Hong Kong has had its own organic certification service, the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre Certification Limited (HKORC), since 2004. It was developed by Baptist University alongside NGOs Produce Green Foundation and Sustainable Ecological Ethical Development Foundation.
It is verified under the Accreditation Program of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), one of the most globally recognised organic organisations.
Also accredited are other commonly seen certifications such as the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Organic Programme and the organic regulations of the European Union.
In some countries organic standards are legally binding, in others they're not.
Organic ingredients are often marketed as being grown without the use of any additives. Marketing implies that instead of fertilisers organic farmers only use compost, and instead of pesticides they pick insects off with their bare hands. In fact, fertilisers and pesticides are often allowed, as long as they are natural, rather than synthetic.
Both IFOAM and HKORC have a list of acceptable substances, which includes soya bean meal, peat moss, sulfur, rotenone (which can be derived from plants in the pea family) and copper. Commercially produced organic additives are also available.
The Ritz-Carlton's Lounge & Bar has been offering an organic salad bar at lunchtime since April this year. Find says he's not sure that customers really understand what it means to eat organically. "Some are really into it. They are very curious, and they ask where the ingredients are from, and how they can buy them. Others just choose it because it's in fashion," he says.
Biasiol says he's "scared that, because it is trendy to eat organic, customers will get exploited and charged more", even though neither he nor Find believe that organic is necessarily more expensive.
"You often find food wastage is lower because the quality of the ingredient is better and you throw out less," says Find.
He doesn't see organic as a fad, either. "I grew up in a small village, so from a very early age I knew what it was like to grow food and to enjoy the diversity and seasonality. We're not just doing it for PR, we do believe there is real value."
The challenge then, is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and serve the best products to diners, whether they have a label or not.
Chan says: "It's our responsibility to find out the source of these ingredients so that all levels of integrity are met. That's when we can educate and sell our products to consumers with zero hesitation."