The truth about organic

There are many valid arguments for organic but they have not always been robustly backed by science

The organic food market was hit hard by the economic downturn of 2008, but has seen steady growth now for six years with consumers believing that the premium attached to organic produce and products is worth paying. With all of the major high street players placing greater importance on organic, availability and choice has never been greater – and these were always the limiting factors for those looking to conveniently include organic elements into their diet.

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The sales of organic food continues to grow steadily in the UK. The Soil Association’s 2018 Organic Market Report records a growth of 6 per cent in 2017, and the market is now worth £2.2 billion, with organic accounting for 1.5 per cent of the total UK food and drink market. And the good news keeps coming – 2017 saw sales of organic in independent retail grow by 9.7 per cent, and in home delivery by 9.5 per cent.

Consumers are increasingly enticed by the promise that organic produce is not only safer and more nutritious, but also tastes better. Organic growers can sell on these beliefs, due to the fact that it is grown without chemicals and using natural fertilisers. There are many valid arguments for organic, but they are not always robustly backed by science. In 2009, the US Food Standards Agency issued a report which concluded there were no significant differences in nutritional composition between organic and conventional crop and livestock products. It noted a higher nitrogen content in conventionally produced crops, but this was unsurprising as conventional farming uses large quantities of nitrogen based fertilisers.

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The research has subsequently been largely discredited – the sample used in the study was unconvincingly small and the studies used did not feature identical breeds and strains, taking no account of the nutritional variations between them, which can be considerable. Later, further analysis of the study results did reveal some interesting data with organic plants being shown to contain on average 25 per cent higher nutrient concentrations. Chemically produced foods were still found to contain more protein.

In 2012, a team at Newcastle University, led by Professor Carlo Leifert, published their results of a scientific study of the benefits of organic fruits, vegetables and cereals. They concluded that there was ‘statistically significant, meaningful’ differences in choosing organic. Notably, the range of antioxidants present was substantially higher – between 19 and 69 per cent – in organic food. There were also lower levels of toxic metals and pesticides. They suggested that the benefits of switching to organic could be as significant as adding one or two portions of the recommended ‘five a day‘.

There continues to be some strong and reasoned arguments against organically produced crops. To produce the same amount of produce organically requires 84 per cent more land than produce grown using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. In a world where there is never enough food to feed a continually growing population, shouldn’t we be growing enough to feed them, however those crops are produced?

Also, covering that extra ground means additional labour and machinery, which means that on average, organic produce results in the emission of about as many greenhouse gasses as conventional produce and around 10 per cent more nitrous oxide, ammonia and acidification. Not good news when most consumers do not even question the environmental credentials of organic farming.

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A key factor for many is that organic means no pesticides, whereas, in fact it can use any pesticide that is classified as natural. This can include copper sulphate, which has been proven to result in liver disease in vineyard workers in France, and Pyrethrin which has been linked to leukaemia.

Despite any negative associations there may be, there is growing evidence that eating organically can help with disease prevention, childhood allergies, obesity, certain cancers and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women. A comprehensive European study, called Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture lists all the research in this area.

Soil Association polling shows healthy eating (55%) and avoiding chemical residues (53%) are key reasons cited by shoppers for buying organic produce.

But there is no doubt that organic growing principles – feeding the soil not the plant, encouraging wildlife, harnessing nature’s own rhythms to control pests and diseases – are better not just for you, but for the planet.

Organic crops and crop-based foods, such as bread, are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops. These additional antioxidants are the equivalent to eating between 1-2 extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

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There is nearly 50% lower toxic heavy metal cadmium in organic crops – but no significant difference for other toxic metals such as arsenic and lead.

Nitrogen concentrations were lower than in conventional crops. The debate continues on the adverse effect of a persistently high nitrate (and nitrite) intake, with the proposed link to an increased risk of some cancers.

Conventional fruit has 75% more pesticides traces. Crop based compound foods (such as bread) have 45% more, and vegetables 32%. The worrying 10% of pesticide residue found on organic crops probably results from spray drift.

Organic milk contains substantially more omega-3 fatty acids. These include nearly 60% more nutritionally desirable, very long chain, omega-3 fatty acids, known as EPA, DPA and DHA.

There were also higher levels of polyunsaturated fat (PUFA), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), vitamin E (a-tocopherol) and iron in organic milk.

However, there were lower levels of selenium and iodine. To address this shortfall in iodine, the UK Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative has increased iodine fortification in dairy feeds. As of 2016, levels are now on a par with conventional milk.

Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function,” writes Chris Seal, Professor of Food and Human Nutrition at Newcastle University. “Western European diets are recognised as being too low in these fatty acids and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends we should double our intake.”

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Why does organic dairy produce have more omega 3? The Soil Association say “This is because organic animals have to eat a more natural grass-based diet containing high levels of clover. Under organic standards, organic cows must eat a 60% fresh grass based diet or hay/silage. Clover is used in organic farming to fix nitrogen so that crops and grass grow (instead of manufactured/chemical fertilisers), and research has found that clover also increases the Omega 3 concentrations in meat and milk.”

In all the above cases, however, the evidence is not conclusive, as there are no long-term studies. Furthermore, it is inherently difficult to separate organic food consumption from other associated lifestyle factors that may affect human health.

Organics is a rich world phenomenon, with 90 per cent of sales in North America and Europe. Despite a fivefold increase in sales over the past 15 years just 1 per cent of global cropland is organic. That’s because almost half of humanity depends on food grown with synthetic fertilisers, excluded by organic rules. Norman Borlaug, who got the Nobel Prize for starting the Green Revolution, liked to point out that organic farming on a global scale would leave billions without food. “I don’t see two billion volunteers to disappear,” he said.

Essentially, organic food is rich people spending their extra cash to feel good. While that is just as valid as spending it on holidays, we should resist any implied moral superiority. Organics are not healthier or better for animals. To expand to any great scale would cost tens of billions of pounds while killing thousands. Indeed, a widespread organics revolution will increase environmental damage, and cut global forests.

One of the clearest benefits of an awareness of the food we choose to eat and being sure of its source and provenance, is that it goes hand in hand with choosing a well balanced diet. According to the Leifert study, those who regularly buy or consume organic food have healthier dietary patterns – such as a higher consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grain products and a lower consumption of meat – compared to other consumers. These dietary patterns are associated with various clear health benefits, which include a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The undeniable fact is that organic growing principles (which encourage feeding the soil not the plant, encouraging wildlife and harnessing nature’s own rhythms to control pests and diseases), are not just better for you, but also for the planet. 

This feature first appeared in the March 18 edition of Natural Mumma Magazine. Words by Gerard Hughes.

A greener life Blog

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