The Reality
By Martin Watt

See also the next article by the late Bernie Hephrun.
The term 'Organic' is used to describe food, drink, cosmetics and other
commodities. If an item is described as 'organic' by a supplier, it is being used
to suggest a superior product. However, the term is misleading because it
describes all living things. It is also applied to 'organic' chemistry.

If something is described as "organically grown" this has a completely
different meaning, but just look at how many products (including essential oils)
are sold as "organically grown". It would require an area of cultivated land as
big as the whole of Europe to supply the volumes of products in the

In the case of aromatherapy suppliers, there are hundreds of web sites using
these misleading terms in order to fool their customers. There are others who
claim all their oils are "organically grown" when that is impossible to achieve if
they sell the full range of essential oils. There are others who buy the cheapest
oils they can find and sell them at inflated prices as 'organic', 'wild grown', etc.

How is "Organically grown" defined?
It is not easy to be specific because each country tends to have its own
definitions. The standards are mainly set by growers trade organisations and
may be adopted by regulatory organisations both Governmental and NGOs.
These standards can be good if adequately policed, or poor, leaving the door
wide open for market abuse.

Crops and produce can be labelled as 'Organically grown' if they conform to the
organisations standards and licensing system. However, some of the
organisations offering certificates are just paper pushers and do not conduct
adequate or any inspections of the grower - particularly the case with some
European organisations.

The criteria which is crucial to organic farming is normally defined as an
'effective soil management regime':

A first phase of clearing the land of unacceptable chemicals has to occur -
this can take up to 5 years of normal weathering. Improvement of the soil
during this period is allowed such as adding lime to reduce soil acidity, or
adding green composting materials. Weeds can be destroyed using barrier
methods such as plastic sheeting. When the required time has elapsed, some
organisations will conduct their own tests to ensure no undesirable residues
remain, while other certification organisations just accept a growers

Once the land is considered 'clean', crops are planted. They can be treated
with permitted fertilisers such as manure, green composts, or in some cases
minerals. Some growers will only plant seeds produced from other organically
licensed farms, but this is another claim to be wary of without proof.

Crop rotation is encouraged to allow soil fertility to be restored. This can
include growing legumes to boost soil nitrogen entrapment. A rotation system
may not apply to essential oil plants that stay in place for many years such as
lavender, rosemary, tea tree etc. When the plants natural life has been
completed or they become unproductive, new plants may be grown on the
same spot. Trees can be classified as organically grown if they are wild, or
plantation crops provided no artificial methods are used for weed control and
pest control.

Weed control can be by manual or machine weeding, barrier sheeting, or by
dense ground covering plants to suppress the weeds.

Pests and disease control
can be by using pest resistant varieties and by
using a predatory-encouraging ecology, E.g. Ladybirds and other natural
predators, or by the application of 'approved' natural pesticides.

Even if all the above are complied with, it does not invariably mean that the
plants are not contaminated. Incidents such as Chernobyl and Fukashima show
just how far contaminants can travel. Most essential oils exported from the old
Soviet republic had to undergo radiological contamination testing and be
certified before being imported. Any aromatic plants grown downwind of
chemical factories could well be contaminated, despite the growers being
certified as only growing organically. There are many such scenarios around
the world that put big question marks over the true nature of organic growth
Is it the soil or the oil which is organically produced?
Whilst the plants may be grown in uncontaminated soil and therefore can be
described as 'organically' grown, the essential oil is a secondary product
resulting from physical and sometimes chemical processing. Therefore, you
may have a Jasmin absolute where the flowers were genuinely organically
grown, but subsequent chemical extraction techniques mean the end product
certainly should not be classified as 'organically grown'. One therefore has to
consider how the oil or extract is processed subsequent to the plants

Another good example is benzoin. The starting resin may be from wild trees.
However, there is no such thing as benzoin essential oil. What is often sold as
“benzoin oil” is the resin dissolved in a solvent which is often a synthetic one.
Therefore if you see benzoin sold as "benzoin oil OG" this is typical trade hype,
or a seller who knows nothing about production.

Describing an oil as 'organic' without any specification is therefore just
marketing hype.
Is the Certificate valid?
As previously pointed out, various organisations have their own definitions and
such definitions need to be evaluated if they are to have any meaning. In
recent years there has been a proliferation of various forms of 'certification'
and these are usually rather vague. The fact that a certificate is demanded by
buyers often means the producer - or more likely middleman dealer - know
they can obtain a higher price. This then raises the question of how genuine
and checkable is the certificate and any organisation granting it.

An important part of this question of reliability of certification is that the large
dealers in the essential oil trade have to tie up many millions of cash in stock.
Therefore, they want to shift that stock as fast as they can. In order to do so,
the claims made by their sales force selling to small non-techically equipped
suppliers, can be exaggerations or just lies.

When one considers the wide variety of plants which can produce oils and the
method of extraction, the problem which invariably emerges is purity,
consistency and the absence of biocides. However, it has not escaped some
growers and traders that to label an oil as 'organic' will help to sell it -
and often at a higher price

Once the raw plant material is processed by steam distillation or solvent
extraction, the chemical compounds may change. New compounds are formed
as a result - some minor, some major. An essential oil is a result of
. Hydrolysis and oxidisation occurs during the process and
components which may not be normally be found in the plant can be produced.
Due to these changes one has to consider whether any essential oils should
really be classified as "natural" even though the starting materials may have
been produced in regulated growing conditions.

Wild is another term which has several meanings.
It usually means that the plants are left to grow without pesticides or
fertilisers. Cross fertilisation means that the new plants have a 'natural
variation' with resultant chemical variation making therapeutic uses unreliable.
The plant material is gathered periodically and the oil distilled. If they are trees
these may be destroyed completely such as happened with Sandalwood, or
their health compromised such as can happen with over exploitation of resin
bearing trees such as the Olibanums.

Some Governments have made attempts to get reputable certification
authorities established. However, in reality, many of these so called "approved"
organisations tend to be paper pushers and nothing more.
Which oils can be certified as 'Organically grown'?
As a general rule trees that are wild and not subject to treatments can be
considered as "organically grown" or "wild grown". Herbaceous plants such as
rosemary grown on uncultivated hills in Tunisia and other areas can be
genuine, but once even that oil has got into the International essential oil
traders hands it can be "touched-up". Therefore traceability is the key but
that is often a difficult task.

Oils produced by farmers in poor countries may be genuinely termed
'organically grown' simply because they cannot afford pesticides, fertilisers,
etc. However, it should not be forgotten that there are cases known of big
pesticide companies dumping stocks of banned pesticides on such countries.
These can then be used by illiterate farmers who are unaware of their dangers.

Literacy is a huge issue over the classification of plants grown in
under-developed countries.
Frequently the peasant farmers cannot read or
write and any documentation required by overseas customers will be filled in
by the middlemen traders. Even the UK Soil Association was accepting such
suspect documentation on essential oils originating in such countries.
Documentation supplied just on the word of the oil suppliers!!
What are the criteria needed to evaluate an oil?
The quality of essential oils can vary considerably. There are variations due to
several factors - botanical, geographical, climate, etc. The production and
distribution varies according to the agricultural regime, distillation methods,
specification, etc. However, even the term 'quality' is open to interpretation.
What may be the correct quality for the food flavouring trade, may be very
different to what is required by the fine fragrance trade. It must never be
forgotten that aromatherapy is only a minute part of the International trade in
oils and they do not as a rule set the standards.

The larger traders in essential oils tend to have every batch of oil analysed by
specialists in the trade. This is because prices are set on the basis of long-
established trade criteria of quality. When ton lots of oils are being sold and
bought, big money is involved and the buyers do not want to get caught out
with a low grade oil sold as top grade. Once you go lower down the supply
chain things get much murkier as far as analysis is concerned. The fact an oil is
claimed to have been analysed means little. There are grades of analysis the
same as grades of oil. Most aromatherapy suppliers cannot afford batch
analysis of their oils. The tendency is to have a few oils from a potential new
supplier analysed to see what they are like. However, that analysis is likely to
be the cheapest they can get and it does not necessarily detect if an oil is
The vast majority of aromatherapy type suppliers will simply
accept what their suppliers tell them about an oil. Indeed many of them know
little more than they have read in the trades popular books (I call them

Some of the reputable middle-men traders in essential oils will not apply the
'organic' or 'organically grown' labels to what they sell because they have been
in the trade so long they know these terms are rarely trustworthy. They will
sell oils to aromatherapy suppliers without such descriptions who then add
their own OG labels. The market is flooded with such traders. Often this lie is
proliferated because the suppliers know that their customers will not purchase
perfectly good oils unless fancy marketing terms are used. Therefore, often the
blame is with customer demands in turn due to inaccurate information in the
trades education systems.

You must beware of those who claim their oils are pesticide free. Routine
analysis of essential oils does NOT detect pesticide residues. Only very large
wholesale traders can afford such testing and this is rare.

A few examples of trade hype taken from another article.
"We grow all our own plants and distil them".
Classic sales hype that one. Since when did sandalwood trees grow in France,
or Ylang trees grow in the USA, or ravensara 'wild' grown in France? I have
seen this all on the literature from certain essential oil suppliers.

"We don't grow them all ourselves, but we inspect all the people that grow the
plants for us."
I have a simple answer to that, hogwash!

“We own the farms in x,y,z.” Ha, Ha, Ha!!

"All our oils come only from organically grown or wild plants".
In the majority of cases this is hype. The International essential oil trade is a
massive agricultural business. There is no sound evidence that organically
grown essential oils are any better than those grown on a commercial scale.
Indeed, in many cases they will not be of such good olfactory quality if they
have been stewed in old copper stills 'on the farm'. If you want to support
organic growers that is a fine thing to do, but please try and get some
evidence that you are not just throwing your money into a con artists pocket.

Another good indication of an intention to mislead is a web site packed with
impressive looking conservation and organic growers logos. This always sets
alarm bells ringing in my head. Particularly when you can't work out what the
heck they mean.

The next one is not so much how to spot a con, as how to spot someone who
does not have a clue about what they are selling. It is suppliers who sell lily of
the valley, apple blossom, strawberry, musk, etc. and in their literature
describe them as 'essential oils'. Many of you will of course know that these
are all synthetic.

The situation for an individual buyer is extremely confusing. The best means is
the analytical profile of an essential oil, but this is principally concerned with
purity rather than the growth methods of the plants. It is up to the individual
buyer to examine the parameters that are given to an oil and never ever rely
on those who say "I trust my suppler". A few are excellent, but hundreds who
seem to be good based on BS marketing are far from it.

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Rosemary oil (Tunisian) - growth and production