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Organic nutrition debate snoozefest returns

Date Published: 05/09/2012

It seems to be pretty much this time of year that we generally have to address a piece of research that has come to the conclusion that organic food is no more nutritious than non-organic. It’s getting tiresome.

We have no problem that the study was carried out, nor are we upset by its conclusions; they are what they are. The real disappointment is the joy with which elements of the media race each other to report selected parts of the study in the most negative way possible.

Here, for your delectation, is one of the worst examples of over-hyped reporting of this story, courtesy of the Daily Express, which really goes to town. Loathe as we are to send this piece any traffic, you should see it if only to see what we’re faced with.

In fairness to the researchers themselves and to the more balanced publications, it’s not all negative, because they do highlight the conclusion that eating organic food significantly reduces exposure to pesticides which, to be frank, is what you would expect – though you would be hard pushed to know that from the Daily Express, given the way it’s buried in the story. This piece from The Guardian is much more balanced and informed.

Those pushing out the more hysterical column inches always seem to fail to acknowledge, or are ignorant of the fact, that organic food is not sold on the premise of being more nutritious. There is so much more to organic food production and its focus has never, ever been to produce food that is higher (or, for that matter, lower) in one element or another. To promote organic food in that way would almost certainly land you in serious bother with authorities of one kind or another.

It bears spelling out again that organic food and farming is about producing food in ways that don’t diminish the environment in the process – and, in fact, should improve it – and which respect and enhance the welfare of any livestock in the system, along with the ecosystem that lives around them. That’s it, really.

When an organic farmer produces crops from the soil, they do it without relying on chemicals to kill weeds or promote growth, primarily because of the impact such compounds have on the long-term life of the soil. The processes an organic farmer uses should build fertility in the soil in order that it may go on to serve us in decades to come, rather than turning to dust and blowing away. Advancing knowledge is focusing increasingly on doing this while actively improving the structure of the soil through the use of composts and other natural products so that our fields are more robust and able to withstand both drought and flood in ways that non organically-farmed land tends not to do.

This latest study, from Stanford University’s Centre for Health Policy, in California, is really very little different to similar research in the recent past (including the first one to cause such hoo-har, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) in that it is an examination and summary of other people’s research. What is quite stark, when you read a bit further, is that even the scientists question the quality of the data they had to work with.

The author of that 2009 LSHTM report for the UK’s Food Standards Agency, Prof. Alan Dangour, points out to the Daily Telegraph that “throughout the paper the authors make it clear that the evidence base is weak and highly variable”. So the authors acknowledge that and a key academic supporter of their results in the UK agrees with them.

That’s not to say we’d have the audacity to suggest their results are worthless; they might not be. It’s probably fair to say that the team from Stanford didn’t set out to knock organics. They were dealing with other people’s research and the perception that consumers automatically believe organic food to be more nutritious (has any worthwhile research been done onĀ that?). That’s not their fault. But the commentators who pick up on this keep grasping at such output to make headlines without stopping to think about whether the aspect of organics that is being talked down is even what organics sets out to achieve.

The very reason for this “weak and highly variable” evidence base is the same problem faced by the organic sector itself: not enough high quality science. Piece by piece indicators are emerging that some organic foods have some nutritional benefits. That’s great, but it’s not the aim of organic food production.

To be honest, we’re not particularly stirred up by this latest bout of bashing. It’s a good excuse to give the real intentions of organic farming an airing and we’re confident that organic consumers are smart enough to know why they are buying the produce. Of course we think that more people would benefit from eating organic because the planet and the animals benefit (and apparently there’s less exposure to pesticides and other chemicals…), but as a sector of agriculture we have to do the work to help them to understand that. It’s the occasional organic consumers, or those who don’t understand why they would buy organic food in the first place, who have to be reached with our message. We’re still not good at achieving that and it just becomes all the harder to do so in the face of such sensationalist reporting.