Skip to main content

A quick guide to organic food

The way that we produce and consume food is having drastic impacts on our biodiversity and climate. So what is organic food and can it help address these problems?

In this article, we look at the benefits and limitations of organic agriculture, give a quick guide to the main organic food labels in the UK, and list some of the best organic brands.

Across the planet, a million species are threatened with extinction. Our food system is the primary driver of this loss. Growing and buying organic food can help to address some of these harms.

What is organic food?

For food to be considered organic, it has to meet a number of criteria:

  • no use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers
  • no use of genetically modified seed
  • fewer animal antibiotics
  • better animal welfare conditions

In the UK, food labelled as organic has to be certified, meaning that it comes with a guarantee that these criteria have been met.

What are the benefits of buying organic food?

No use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers

The majority of the food we consume is produced with large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Chemical pesticides are usually sprayed on crops to kill insects, fungi or other ‘pests’, which can eat or affect a plant’s growth. Chemical fertilisers are compounds that provide extra nutrients.

Chemical fertiliser and most chemical pesticides are produced from fossil fuels, and their production and use has major carbon impacts. The carbon footprint from the most common type of chemical fertiliser outstrips that of the aviation industry.

Chemical pesticides are also a major contributor to global biodiversity decline. They don’t just target the pests that they are intended to kill, they can also harm bees or other vital insects. Pesticides also runoff from the field, into waterways and the surrounding landscape, endangering fish and other animals.

Likewise, fertilisers runoff into rivers and lakes. This causes something called “algal bloom”, whereby algae (plants that live in water) grow faster and more densely than they otherwise would. These can let off toxins that cause harm to people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds.

In early years of use, chemical fertilisers and pesticides increase the success of crops. But over time, they destroy the natural cycles of the soil and environment that help plants to grow. It becomes increasingly difficult to produce crops without them, locking farmers into dependence. This cycle forces farmers to pay for these expensive inputs, eroding their incomes.

Organic agriculture also uses fertilisers and pesticides, but it relies on non-chemical ones, like manure or neem oil. These can also have significant environmental impacts: organic fertilisers in particular emit significant amounts of greenhouse gasses, and can cause eutrophication. However, organic inputs tend to break down more rapidly, and many organic farms also focus on improving biodiversity and soil health.

No use of genetically modified seeds

Genetic modification involves inserting new genes into seeds.

Genetically modified (GM) seeds are extremely contentious amongst scientists and environmentalists. Proponents of GM argue that they can increase yields and help farmers to adapt to climate change. However, lots of people believe that they carry risks that are currently not well researched or understood.

GM crops are adapted to be used with particular chemical pesticides and fertilisers. When farmers use these seeds, they often have to use the corresponding chemicals with them. This can create a cycle of toxic production.

GM seeds are also often designed to be dominant: when they cross-pollinate with other varieties, it will always be the GM one that thrives. This can mean that GM can kill off other varieties, reducing genetic diversity. Some varieties will be more resilient to pests or diseases than others, so if a whole area is planted with GM crops, they can all get wiped out by one pathogen.

Companies producing GM seeds own patents for them. Due to these patents, farmers cannot reproduce the seed themselves, but have to buy it again new each year. Farmers become dependent on huge multinational seed corporations, reducing their income and resilience.

Fewer animal antibiotics

Overuse of antibiotics is causing the development of antibiotic-resistance drugs, which do not respond to normal treatments. As antibiotics become less effective, many people could start to die from treatable illnesses like urinary tract infections or minor operations. In fact, a study in 2016 estimated that 10 million people could die every year worldwide, more than die from cancer, because of antibiotic resistance.

The majority of antibiotics used globally are given to animals. Antibiotics can help animals to grow faster, and in many places are used for this purpose, rather than because an animal is sick. This practice has been banned in the UK and the EU, but imported meat may be fed in this way.

Animals reared in small indoor spaces are more likely to catch diseases, meaning that antibiotics can be used preventatively to stop them getting sick or compensate for poor farm practices.

Organic certifications place strict restrictions on antibiotic use. For example, antibiotics cannot be used preventatively unless an animal is having surgery. Antibiotics that are critically important for human treatments can only be used if there is no other treatment available.

A 2021 survey found that organic farms in the UK had far lower antibiotic use per animal, compared to conventional farms. They used 5 times less than conventional chicken farms, and seventy-five times less than conventional pig farms.

Better animal welfare conditions

Organic certifications have the highest animal welfare standards of any label in the UK for meat, dairy and eggs.

Soil Association Organic, which is the most common label, includes the following criteria:

  • Access to pasture and space for all animals
  • No beak trimming for chickens (a practice that involves cutting a chicken’s beak short to avoid pecking one another due to stress and lack of space)
  • Five-times smaller chicken flocks than for free-range
  • No tail docking or teeth trimming for pigs (i.e. cutting a pig’s tail or teeth short, to avoid biting one another’s tails due to stress or lack of space)
  • Fish must be killed humanely

Other organic standards vary, but minimum requirements should include: animals should be grazed outside for most of the year (weather permitting); and a minimum weaning age for calves of 12 weeks.

The image below shows the amount of space a hen producing eggs gets under organic certification, vs other labels.

Infographic showing relative space for hens. Organic hens get more space than free range or barn hens, and considerably more than cage hens.
Relative space for hens: Organic hens get more space than free range or barn hens, and considerably more than cage hens.

Soil Association also has a label for farmed fish. It ensures humane slaughter, and provides a limit to the number of fish that can be kept in a single area. However, Compassion in World Farming has highlighted some areas that could be stronger: for example, it doesn’t ban mutilations or set a maximum amount of time the fish can be out of water.

Read more about how it compares to other animal welfare labels in our article on animal rights and the food industry.

What are the challenges for organic food?

Does organic food use more land?

Over the last 1,000 years, almost three-quarters of the Earth’s land-surface has been altered by human activity. The decisions we make about land have a huge impact on climate and biodiversity. Every time land is converted for agriculture, industry or cities and towns, we reduce the space for forests and other ecosystems that store carbon and provide a home for plants and animals.

Critics point out that organic food production can require more land than conventional farming. A study in 2022 found that organic production on average had a 25% lower yield than conventional production – meaning that 25% less food was produced on the same amount of land. However, over time, organic production can become more productive – as soil health and methods improve – reducing or even closing the yield gap.

Many scientists and academics point out that world hunger and land conversion are primarily driven by our diets and the way that food is distributed - not organic production. For example, beef and lamb require around 100 times more land than peas or tofu, and soya grown in the Amazon is primarily used as animal fodder. To find out more read about this, read our article comparing the climate impact of meat, vegetarian and vegan diets.

There is huge variety in organic farming methods, and productivity will vary enormously depending on which is chosen. If you know the farmer or retailer that you buy your food from, it’s worth asking them more about how their produce is grown.

Three brown and white cattle calves

The carbon footprint of organic meat and dairy

While organic meat and dairy are much better than factory farming when it comes to animal rights, they do pose challenges in terms of land use and carbon footprint.

Organic farms give animals much more space than intensive farms. This means that for the same amount of meat, milk or eggs, more land is required. And decisions about how we use land have a big knock-on effect for carbon footprint.

In 2020, a study compared the greenhouse gas emissions from organic and non-organic meat. It found that emissions were very similar. Industrially farmed animals are fed on intensively grown soya and other products that increase their carbon footprint. But organic animals generally grew slower and lived longer, which increased their emissions.

So buying organic meat is not necessarily a simple route to reducing your environmental impacts. If you do want to continue eating meat and dairy, you might want to consider opting for produce with higher standards, but buying less.

What organic food logos should I look for?

All food marketed as organic in the UK must be produced to legally set organic standards. Below we also list a number of specific organic labels, some of which have higher criteria than the legal baseline.

Soil Association

The Soil Association is the world’s oldest organic standard, and the most commonly found organic label in the UK. Soil Association contains the strongest animal welfare criteria of any certification available here (including Free Range).

Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G)

OF&G certifies over 1400 farmers, who farm more than half of the UK’s organic land.

As well as certifying products, OF&G also provides support and guidance to farmers and businesses seeking organic certification. They offer training programmes, workshops, and resources to help farmers transition to and maintain organic practices.


The Demeter label shows that products have been produced under biodynamic standards, as well as being organic.

Biodynamic production focuses on creating a harmonious and sustainable relationship with the environment. It involves, for example, ensuring a diversity of habitats, rotating crops for soil health, and working with resources available within the farm. Farms should strive for self-sufficiency, aiming to produce their own fertilisers and animal feed rather than buying in products.

Scottish Organic Producers Association (SOPA)

SOPA is the only standard specific to farmers in Scotland. The group says, “This means that our organic standards suit the culture of Scottish farming, and respect our unique climate, geography and biodiversity.”

SOPA is a membership organisation. It provides farmers with mentoring and support for converting to and maintaining organic practices, bringing knowledge of Scottish organic farming.

Where to buy organic food

Nearly all of the larger supermarkets now stock some fresh organic produce. They also often sell a number of organic options (own brand or branded) for dried and tinned goods.

If you can, the best way to buy fresh organic produce is directly from the farm or through a small local retailer. Local farms might offer organic veg box schemes – where a selection of fresh produce is delivered to your door or to a drop off point. We’ve written more about this and other direct purchase options in our Supermarkets guide. Local grocers and wholefood stores often also offer a range of organic choices.

You might want to look out for Mr Organic, and organic products from Amisa, Alara, Biona, Essential or Suma in your local supermarket or wholefood store. Below we also list a range of organic brands by product type. We also highlight organic certified brands in all our shopping guides.

Mr Organic, Island Bakery and Dove’s Farm all sell organic biscuits. Mr Organic is an exclusively organic Italian brand, selling store cupboard foods like beans and pasta, as well as gluten free and vegan items. Island Bakery makes its products on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. Doves Farm specialises in organic flour, and has reintroduced some of the UK’s lost ancient grains.

Read more in our guide to biscuits.

The number of ethical chocolate companies is booming. Our favourites – all of which are Fair Trade and have organic options – include Pacari, Chocolat Madagascar and MIA. 

As well as being organic, these brands are ‘value-added-at-source’. This means that the bar is produced in the same country as where the cocoa is grown. Manufacturing chocolate receives much higher financial returns than growing the raw product, so these models ensure a greater proportion of profits stays in the local economy. 

Read more in our shopping guide to chocolate.

There are lots of great options for organic coffee. Cafedirect can be found in most supermarkets and wholefood shops, and is one of the lower cost ethical options. 

Bird & Wild is certified as ‘bird-friendly’. This means that the coffee bushes are grown below larger, shadier trees, providing good cover and a habitat for bird species.

Read more in our guide to coffee.

Lucy Bee and Tiana sell organic and Fair Trade coconut oil. Zaytoun offers organic and Fairtrade olive oil. It is a not-for-profit company that focuses on reinvesting back into Palestinian livelihoods. 

There are a range of options for other types of oils, including Suma, Mr Organic and Essential.

See more in our guide to cooking oil.

Organic certification has the highest animal welfare standards for eggs of any label in the UK. Lots of supermarkets sell organic eggs. Brands to look out for include Clarence Court and Stonegate Estate. 

The most ethical option if you buy eggs is to find a small local retailer selling eggs from a local organic farm. An even more ethical option is to use non-animal replacements. See more in our guide to eggs and egg replacements.

There is a growing range of organic and Fair Trade soft drinks available in the UK. Karma Cola and LemonAid and ChariTea offer great options. LemonAid and ChariTea are a not-for-profit, reinvesting proceeds into social programs in growing regions.

Calyx is a Black-owned business, using mostly organic ingredients, and flowers, natural botanicals, and spices, to make its drinks.

Find out more in our soft drinks guide.


Hampstead offers herbal and breakfast teas that are both organic and Fairtrade certified. Its teas come from the Makaibari Tea Estate in India, which is certified biodynamic. The brand says, “66% of the Makaibari Tea Estate is undisturbed rainforest where tea grows in harmony with the area’s natural ecological system.” 

Our herbal tea and regular tea guides list multiple other brands that are also organic and aim to improve conditions for workers. Amongst these, Steenbergs offers loose leaf options. 


As mentioned above, lots of supermarkets offer some organic options. But for the biggest choice of options, and to support a local business, look for a local ethical supermarket or wholefood store. Our supermarket guide lists some of the better known choices. 

Delivery services like Riverford Organics and Abel & Cole sell dairy, meat and eggs as well as fruit and veg. 

You may also be able to purchase organic fruit and vegetables directly from local farms, which is perhaps the most ethical choice. Community Supported Agriculture, for example, is a partnership between consumers and growers: consumers pay a weekly amount to the farm, which guarantees it an income, and then share in the harvest. Our supermarket guide lists a range of websites that can help you find local options.

Is organic food fair trade?

The focus of organic food is more environmentally-sound production, while the focus of fair trade is labour and farmers’ rights. Crucially, fair trade includes price protections for growers. Farmers are guaranteed a minimum price for their produce and receive a ‘premium’, which workers can decide how to use. This protects farmers and workers if the market crashes, and helps to alleviate poverty, a major underlying cause of workers’ rights issues.

Organic standards do contain some criteria addressing workers’ rights, for example on fair wages, safe working conditions, the right to organise and the prohibition of child labour. These are checked as part of audits. But they are not as stringent as the worker rights criteria included in Fair Trade.

Organic does not include price protection. On the other hand, fair trade does not address so many environmental criteria, and is available for a smaller number of products.

You can often find products that are both organic and fair trade, meaning that environmental and workers’ rights criteria are met.

Find out more in our article on fair trade and food.