In defense of organic food
By Deni Archer
If you watch the news you may have noticed that, from one week to the next, different scientific studies on the same topics with opposing conclusions make an appearance. This makes it difficult for any reasoning person to reach hard and fast opinions about many pressing issues. That these opposing outcomes can occur is symptomatic of a reductionist science, and the cause of the “science for sale” accusations that have been bandied around in the last few years.
This week the media jumped on the bandwagon of the Stanford University review of studies comparing the health benefits of organic food with conventional industrial food. The conclusion reached was summarised by one researcher as “There isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health”. However they did conclude that organic food is significantly less likely to contain pesticides - from our knowledge, one of the primary health reasons people choose to buy organic food.
There are numerous studies out there showing that organic food does have significantly higher nutritional value, especially for Vitamin C and antioxidants. For example, one EU funded study showed that organic fruit and vegetables contained up to 40% more antioxidants than non-organic varieties. This is only an example of scores of other similar studies, so how did the Stanford review of over 200 studies come up with their conclusion?
Naturally, immediate questions that came to mind were about how the variables within and between the studies were assessed. Different soils, climates, and environments all play a very big role in the nutrient content of resulting food. Furthermore, mass produced monoculture organic food is very different to more holistic systems such as permaculture and biodynamics. The Soil Association picked up on these points too, and found the Stanford review methodology to be flawed on this account:
“The scientific methodology used for the review, while suitable for comparing trials of medicines, is not right for comparing different crops. A medicine used in Scotland is expected to behave in exactly the same way as the same medicine used in California, but potatoes grown in different climates and soils will be different.”
Apparently, studies on crop trials cannot be compared in the same way as clinical trials. Doing it in this way tends to exaggerate variations and in turn minimise the real differences. The Soil Association says that studies in the UK which use the correct analysis have found the differences in nutrient levels between organic and conventionally grown food to be “highly significant”.
Another criticism of the review points out that the study does not include a measure of additives like hormones, sweeteners, antibiotics, etc, nor processes like genetic modification or irradiation. The review does highlight, though, that organic milk is significantly healthier, while organic meat contains fewer antibiotic resistant bacteria strands - all very significant health benefits.
The study did find that organic food contains significantly lower amounts of pesticides, and we would say this is highly beneficial to health (anyone who has seen a documentary such as ‘Our daily poison’, or spoken to a converted organic farmer will attest to this). But organic food isn’t only about human health. It’s also about the natural environment and animal welfare. Conventional farming destroys biodiversity and pumps poisons into our air and waterways. This impacts on ecosystems and ecosystem services that humans rely on, and since we are inextricably interlinked with our natural environment, this impacts in peripheral ways on our health by default.
The way we see it, organic food is a better choice, hands down. The science may be confusing at times, but when you look into it at a deeper level, we don’t think there is much reason to doubt.
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