Here in the UK organic food has become quite a major money spinner, with most large supermarket chains offering organic options. For example if I pop into my local Sainsburys I can buy the standard issue tomato for say £1.78 per kg, or buy the organic range ones for quite a bit more. There are also shops that specialise in organic produce where I could, if was substantially richer or insane, buy a single avocado for £1.80 ($4.50).
Today the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) released a report , which took the form of a ‘systematic review of literature’, carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). LSHTM’s team of researchers, reviewed all papers published over the past 50 years that related to the nutrient content and health differences between organic and conventional food. This systematic review is the most comprehensive study in this area that has been carried out to date (according to the FSA). The conclusion it reached was that “organic food is no healthier and provides no significant nutritional benefit compared with conventionally produced food “.
This set off something of a firestorm in the newspapers comments section which brought up some very good points.
1)Just exactly what is organic food anyway?
To me the term has always been very woolly, conjuring up visions of hardy smock-wearing individuals toiling in the fields whilst chewing on barley stalks. I assumed it meant that no ‘artificial’ pesticides or fertiliser had been used on crops and no hormones, antibiotics, moisturising cream etc administered to animals. But what is an artificial fertiliser? I can use crop rotation and plant lupins or some other nitrogen fixing plant one year to fertilise the soil, but why not just bung on some nitrogen fertiliser and grow more food crops instead? Does that make me non-organic? Which brings me onto the next point…
2)Who defines what organic food is?
Here in the UK it is in fact the European Union which has set down a Compendium of UK Organic Standards. Farmers who want to label their produce must adhere to the standards and be certified by a Government approved body such as the Soil Association. The UK Soil Association does have an attempt at defining organic on their website saying that ‘artificial chemical fertilisers are prohibited’ (so nitrogen fertiliser is out) in preference of clover crop rotation. However they also say that pesticides are ‘severely restricted’ (ie not banned) although it seems OK to use copper sulphate as a fungicide.
It was interesting to see the polarising effect of this study, which divided people mainly into two camps. One side was more or less along the lines of ‘I don’t want to put chemicals into my body so therefore organic is better’ while the others were put off by the expense and lack of clarity over exactly what the supposed benefits were, assuming nutrition is not one of them. Clearly modern farming practise has greatly increased food production, which presumably is a good thing.
Unfortunately the effects of fertiliser/pesticide or agricultural practises on the environment were outside the remit of this report. I think a most people do take the overall environmental impact into consideration when buying organic and although I haven’t seen any studies it seems to me quite obvious that they can have an impact – look at the problems with the Rotorua Lakes or Mad Cow disease (BSE) for example. Certainly when it comes to animal welfare and to an extent GMO crops I would tend to be on the side of ‘organic’.
However I think the study is useful in order to show those who run a mile at the word ‘chemical’ that in fact their $2 carrot and my 20c one aren’t actually as different as they may think.