Take off the blinkers and see the broader view of Organic food

31 July 2009

Yesterdays newspapers were full of it:

“Organic food is no healthier and provides no significant nutritional benefit compared with conventionally produced food”, it contains “no more nutritional value than factory-farmed meat or fruit and vegetables grown using chemical fertilisers” reported the Guardian & the Times.

How different to the headlines in 2007 reporting that the biggest study into organic food found it to be more nutritious than ordinary produce and may help to lengthen people’s lives.

Shortcomings of the new study

Before I move on to my main argument, about taking a broad view of the benefits of Organic, I think it’s worthwhile pointing out some of the shortcomings of the new study. The Executive summary of the study outlines it’s narrow scope: “This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices.”

It’s not only limited in scope but also, although based on 50,000 studies, limited in it’s evidence base. Looking at the articles excluded from the study one could easily conclude that “only Western studies focused strictly on nutrient comparison were reviewed. That would seem to overlook many studies which might show organic food to be a much healthier option” – and how many of those were undertaken by the food industry themselves? It seems to me as though the evidence chosen, to fit the narrow scope of the study, and the headlines which emitted from the study’s findings presented a very blinkered view of “health” and benefits of organic food.

PPP have also noted that this desktop study, as is the usual way of doing things, was outsourced by the Food Standards Agency to a group within the University of London’s London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who work regularly and closely together. This group includes Dr Ricardo Uauy who has been a paid advisor to Unilever, Wyeth, Danone, DSM, Kellogg, Knowles and Bolton, Roche Vitamins Europe Ltd., and the International Copper Association.

Finally, looking at the shortcomings of the study, the hype and headlines forget that there are plenty of other studies that say very different things. The Guardian pointed out that Carlo Leifert, a professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University and the co-ordinator of a major EU-funded study which recently found nutrient levels were higher in organic foods, said the conclusions of the study were selective. He said: “I’m worried about the conclusions. The ballpark figures they have come up with are similar to ours. I don’t understand why the FSA are not going away and saying, ‘Right, there’s something you can do on a farm to improve food.’ But they are so blocked by not wanting to say positive things about organic farming.”

The broader view

I’m not a scientist, I haven’t undertaken any of these studies, but I am a consumer and I know what I prefer. So let’s take a look at the broader view of organic:

First, let’s look at what other people say: Leo Hickman in the Guardian points out people choose organic for many reasons: environmental stewardship (supporting the natural environment growing our food rather than obliterating it with chemical compounds to push it beyond its limits), the avoidance of pesticide residues, better animal welfare, taste. It’s a system of growing food which conserves soils, encourages biodiversity, eliminates greenhouse gas-intensive nitrogen inputs, conserves genetic diversity, and brings more income to the grower. There have been many studies about the biodiversity benefits of organic farms. And there are health benefits beyond the narrow view of the FSA study such as higher levels of omega-3 and beneficial fatty acids in milk, meat and eggs.

So the narrow, blinkered view of “health” benefits, or not, of the FSA study is misleading. There are far more things that affect human health and well-being, whether it’s in the food or not.

It could be the pesticide residues I don’t want to eat, or the higher levels of omega three and animal welfare in the eggs in my vegetarian diet.

It could also be the fact that I’d like to support natural ecosystems (plant and wildlife that have to co-exist with our farming of the land), see skylarks, butterflies and all those aspects of nature which organic farming helps retain and which add to my general feeling of wellbeing. It could also be that I don’t want to see the environmental destruction of soil compounds (caused by non-organic chemicals), for example, which lead to increased run-off of rainwater into rivers (rather than soaking into the soil) which has proven to exacerbate the speed and intensity of flooding.

I’m not an organic-dogmatic: if there’s a choice that’s not excessively higher in price, I’ll tend to buy it. Why? Because all those things above cross my mind, and, because – physically and metaphorically – organic food leaves a much better taste in my mouth.


My Vegetarianism

1 July 2009

I loved reading today the news stories about vegetarianism and research showing that vegetarians have a substantially lower risk of cancer than meat eaters. Vegetarians are 45% less likely to develop cancer of the blood than meat eaters and are 12% less likely to develop cancer overall.

As the Guardian reports:

The Oxford research is the latest in a series of reports to discourage too much meat in the diet. Last year, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – which last year earned a share of the Nobel peace prize – urged giving up meat at least once a week as a way of combating global warming. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that meat production accounts for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Two years ago, the World Cancer Research Fund found a link between red and processed meat and bowel cancer and recommended that the average amount of meat eaten should be no more than 300g a week. In Britain, the current meat intake is about 970g a week for men and about 550g a week for women.

I have been vegetarian for about ten years now. I became vegetarian for a number of reason, some health, some poverty, some to simply get my own way. But I must say I am glad that I am. My main reason for being vegetarian now is simply that I have no desire to eat meat. If it started causing me health problems then I could eat fish, but really would still have no desire to eat meat. And the fact that I’m helping the planet is a bonus! Apart from cheese and eggs, my diet is very low in animal fats, and I feel far healthier as a result. I’ve recently taken to using Rice Milk on my breakfasts (not for moral reasons, but simply because the human body isn’t designed to digest copious amounts of milk) and feel a lot healthier for it.

It’s easy to be vegetarian – although eating out options are more limited. Some parts of the UK still think that vegetarians will only eat pasta, and other parts of Europe think we eat chicken. I got some strange looks when holidaying in Colombia and trying to explain that I was veggie. I’m not a militant vegetarian – I firmly believe that if you could kill the animal yourself you have every right to eat it – but I hope the latest in a series of reports will show people that, while it’s obviously not the answer to illness or climate change – vegetarianism (whole, partial, or simply by eating less meat) is a step in the right direction.


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