IS ORGANIC FOOD BETTER FOR US?

 

Research by the Soil Association indicates that consumers purchase organic food for the following reasons:

 

  • Naturalness/unprocessed 
  • Restricted use of pesticides 
  • Better taste 
  • Better for my well-being 
  • Better for the planet 
  • More care in farming 
  • Kind to animals 
  • GM free 
  • Encourages wildlife 
  • Helping climate change 

 

What is the legal definition of organic farming?

The Compendium of UK Organic Standards (“Compendium”) is the standard for organic food production in the UK. It is based on, and complies with, Council Regulation (EEC) No. 2092/91, as amended.

 

The Compendium defines organic farming as:

Organic production systems designed to produce optimum quantities of food of high nutritional quality by using management practices which aim to avoid the use of agro-chemical inputs and which minimise damage to the environment and wildlife.

The principles include:

  1. Working with natural systems rather than seeking to dominate them
  2. The encouragement of biological cycles involving micro-organisms, soil flora and fauna, plants and animals
  3. The maintenance of valuable existing landscape features and adequate habitats for the production of wildlife, with particular regard to endangered species
  4. Careful attention to animal welfare considerations
  5. The avoidance of pollution

6.Consideration for the wider social and ecological impact of the farming system.

What does “Organic” Really Mean?

It is clear that customers have become increasingly confused about what organic actually means and whether it is worth the higher price tag. 

Organic foods are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilisers. Organic foods do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.

Organic farming relies on techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control. Natural fertilisers and pesticides (which include herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) are used. However, the use of plant growth regulators such as hormones, livestock antibiotics, food additives genetically modified organisms, human sewage sludge and nanomaterials are restricted.

 

Organic production is an overall system of farm management and food production that combines best environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources, and the application of high animal welfare standards.

 

How is organic food production regulated?

All food sold as ‘organic’ must be produced according to European laws on organic production. These laws require food sold as ‘organic’ to come from growers, processors and importers who are registered and approved by organic certification bodies, which are in turn registered by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Is Organic Food Nutritionally Superior?

There is some evidence that a predominately organic diet reduces the amount of toxic chemicals ingested, avoids GMOs, reduces the amount of food additives and colourings

 in addition to increasing the amount of vitamins, antioxidants and beneficial fatty acids.

Others have vehemently argued that current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any safer or more nutritious or tastier than conventionally produced food.

The Food Standards Agency (“FSA”) is a non-ministerial government department responsible for protecting public health and interests in respect of food produced in the UK. A 12-month systematic review commissioned by the FSA in July 2009 and conducted at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine based on 50 years’ worth of collected evidence concluded that “there is no good evidence that consumption of organic food is beneficial to health in relation to nutrient content.

 

Other studies have found no proof that organic food offers greater nutritional values, more consumer safety or any distinguishable difference in taste and that consumers are wasting their money if they buy organic food believing that it contains better nutrients.

However, the study appears had some glaring errors and omissions in the criteria for what constituted a ‘significant health benefit’. For example the level of toxic contamination of the food was never quantified. Therefore the fact that these fruits or vegetables had been continually sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides was ignored and did not play a factor in the final analysis.

 

Some nutritional benefits discovered by the study failed to make it into the final decision. For example the report showed a higher rate of beta-carotene in organic food, sometimes as much as 53% higher. Beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A in the body, which is a potent anti-oxidant, protecting the body against ageing. 

The study also did not take into consideration the nutrient density of the soil used to grow the crops or the quality and contamination levels of the water used to irrigate the crops. Clearly these two variables are critically important to accurately measure the nutrient density of fruit and vegetables. Water your house plants with spring water, rather than tap water, to see the incredible difference pure water can make to the growth and health of plants.

An independent research project in the UK systematically reviewed the 162 articles on organic versus non-organic crops published in peer-reviewed journals between 1958 and 2008.

These contained a total of 3558 comparisons of content of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced foods. They concluded that evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced produce.

Joseph D. Rosen, Emeritus Professor of food toxicology at Rutgers concluded – “Any consumers who buy organic food because they believe that it contains more healthful nutrients than conventional food are wasting their money.”

Organic proponents also argue that organic food tastes better. In the same poll where 95% of UK organic consumers said they buy organic to avoid pesticides, over two-thirds of respondents said organic produce and meats taste better than non-organic ones. However, in blind taste tests they found that people could not tell the difference.

 

Does Organic Farming Produce Lower Yields?

Studies comparing yields have had mixed results; one study found a 20% smaller yield from organic farms using 50% less fertilizer and 97% less pesticide.

 Research suggests that organically managed soil has a higher quality

 and higher water retention. 

However, critics of organic farming methods believe it cannot rival the production output of conventional farming, therefore it has a high ecological cost due to the need for space.

One study produced by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found that, area-for-area, organic farms of potatoes, sugar beet and seed grass produce as little as half the output of conventional farming.

However, Michael Pollan concludes that the average yield of world agriculture is substantially lower than modern sustainable farming yields. Bringing average world yields up to modern organic levels could increase the world’s food supply by 50%.

 

A 2007 study

 compiled research from 293 different comparisons into a single study to assess the overall efficiency of the two agricultural systems, concluding: 

…”organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base”

 

What Pesticides are Used?

Organic farming just like other forms of conventional agriculture, uses pesticides and fungicides (albeit natural) to prevent pests of all forms from destroying their crops. Many natural pesticides have been found to pose potential health risks to humans.

 Canadian scientists pitted ‘reduced-risk’ organic and synthetic pesticides against each other in controlling a problematic pest, the soybean aphid. They found that not only were the synthetic pesticides more effective means of control, the organic pesticides weremore ecologically damaging, including causing higher mortality in other, non-target species like the aphid’s predators.

 

The Environment

Several surveys and studies have attempted to examine and compare conventional and organic systems of farming. The general consensus across these surveys

 is that organic farming is less damaging to the environment as organic farms do not consume or release synthetic pesticides into the environment, some of which have the potential to harm soil, water and local terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.

In addition, organic farms are better than conventional farms at sustaining diverse ecosystems, i.e., populations of plants and insects, as well as animals. When calculated per unit area, organic farms use less energy and produce less waste, e.g., waste such as packaging materials for chemicals.

A 2003 investigation by the DEFRA found that organic farming “can produce positive environmental benefits”, but that some of the benefits were decreased or lost when comparisons are made on “the basis of unit production rather than area”.

Organic farming utilizes crop rotation and rests fields for years to preserve the nutrient levels of the soil. Conventional farming in contrast is intensive, depleting the nutrients from the soil, ensuring that crops become weaker over time and require additional synthetic pesticides to ward off disease and pests.

Agricultural run off from synthetic fertilisers cause excess nutrients in lakes, rivers, and groundwater which can lead to algal blooms, eutrophication, and subsequent aquatic dead zones

Organic agriculture emphasizes closed nutrient cycles, biodiversity, and effective soil management providing the capacity to mitigate and even reverse the effects of climate change.

Organic agriculture can decrease fossil fuel emissions and, like any well managed agricultural system, sequesters carbon in the soil. Agriculture has been undervalued and underestimated as a means to combat global climate change. Soil carbon data show that regenerative organic agricultural practices are among the most effective strategies for mitigating CO2emissions.

 

A wide range of organisms benefit from organic farming, nearly all non-crop, naturally occurring species observed in comparative farm land practice studies show a preference for organic farming both by abundance and diversity

 

. An average of 30% more species inhabit organic farms

 Birds, butterflies, soil microbes, beetles, earthworms, Blakemore, 2000

 spiders, vegetation, and mammals are particularly affected. Lack of herbicides and pesticides improve biodiversity fitness and population density.

 

Conclusion

It seems clear that both sides of the organic debate should work together to improve global food resources and act sustainably, investing in finding ways to ensure that organic farming is the way forward. Through utilisation of new technologies to reduce pesticide use, while increasing the bioavailability of soils, yields, and nutrient dense foods at the same output as conventional farming.

In the end, it really depends on exactly what methods are used by crop producers. Both organic and conventional farms vary widely in this respect. Some conventional farms use no pesticides. Some organic farms spray their crops twice a month. Of course, some conventional farms spray just as frequently, if not more so, and some organic farms use no pesticides whatsoever. 

It is undisputed that conventional farming has much wider ecological and health consequences for us and our children.

“Organic” much like “Natural” has become a bastardised by corporations. Companies are intentionally doing the bare minimum to get organic certification in order to charge a premium for their products. To really know what you are eating, you need to know your source. I highly recommend making your way to a local Farmers’ Market. They are becoming increasingly popular and they give you the opportunity to speak directly with the person who produced the food to find out how it is grown and harvested. 

References

 

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Sir John Krebs. June 5, 2003. Is organic food better for you? Speech given by the then-chair of the Food Standards Agency (UK), Sir John Krebs, to the Cheltenham Science Fair on June 5, 2005. Posted on the Food Standards Agency website: http://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2003/jun/cheltenham

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