A research scientist at New Zealand's Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, or GNS Science as its known, has come up with a way to find out if vegetables are truly organic or not - by isotope testing base elements such as nitrogen and carbon. Karyne Rogers says the test is cheap, and she came up with it to stop people being fooled into thinking something labelled organic actually was.
Because there is a marked difference in the isotopic nitrogen signatures of natural manure versus artificial fertiliser, the test reveals whether any industrial fertiliser has aided the growing. The test can also distinguish whether vegetables have been grown hydroponically or in soil, and can be done at any stage during vegetable growth.
A similar carbon test can determine whether tomatoes, for example, have been grown in a hothouse heated by fossil fuels, and Dr. Rogers said she is working on another regime to test whether eggs are free range or barn laid.
With a turn-around time for a test of about 10 days, its application is essentially limited to commercial concerns, but importers for example could find it useful to check the say-so of their suppliers. And, who knows, in the future some form of hand-held device might be developed to make such tests more publicly accessible.
GNS Science already tests orange juice to determine if sugar or tap water have been added, and honey to determine if bees have been fed sugar or if glucose has been added to increase volume.
Dr. Rogers said isotope analysis techniques offer the food industry a quick and reliable way to boost confidence in labelling, and in addition to verifying organics, her team is developing isotope-based tests that would determine if produce labelled "NZ Grown" was in fact grown in New Zealand.