Organic Peppers, Photo by Margaret M Hoff
A report on organic food was released this week by Dr. Alan Dangour of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK. Since then, the internet has been overwhelmed by blogs and articles discussing whether or not this will change the public’s perception of organic foods, and whether or not one should spend more money on food that is essentially the same. There has been a significant amount of importance placed on the nutritional value of organic foods, at least in the last few days since this study came out. Before this week, the nutritional values of organic versus conventional were not discussed in such a dramatic, emotional way. What is implied in all of these articles is that the organic (hence the environmental) movement is a scam – it is as corrupt as the big corporations and perhaps even as corrupt as (gasp!) the government – and will do anything to hoodwink the average American struggling in these tough economic times to buy healthy food for their families.
What has not been discussed this week is the actual results of the study, the validity of the study, the overall loss of nutrition in all of our food, and finally, the multiple reasons for eating organic food, including what is not in organic food and why that makes it healthier, the taste, to support sustainable farming practices for the health of the environment, the (positive) future of the earth’s food production, the farmers welfare, animal welfare, concern about the industrialization of food, and an attempt to eliminate fossil fuel dependency.
In regards to the actual results of the study, the Soil Association responds to the FSA study by wondering why they labeled the nutritional benefits of organic food as “unimportant:”
Although the researchers say that the differences between organic and non-organic food are not 'important', due to the relatively few studies, they report in their analysis that there are higher levels of beneficial nutrients in organic compared to non-organic foods. For example, the mean positive difference between the following nutrients, when comparing organic to non-organic food, was found in the FSA study to be:
- Protein 12.7% - Beta-carotene 53.6% - Flavonoids 38.4% - Copper 8.3% - Magnesium 7.1% - Phosphorous 6% - Potassium 2.5% - Sodium 8.7% - Sulphur 10.5% - Zinc 11.3% - Phenolic compounds 13.2%
The FSA report states that “there is no good evidence that increased dietary intake, of the nutrients identified in this review to be present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health” (emphasis added). Does the referenced “normal varied diet” refer to a raw-food died, a vegetarian diet, or the average mostly-junk-and- processed-foods diet? This would clarify whether or not the additional nutrition in organic food would in fact make a health difference.
In terms of the validity of the study, the Soil Association also mentioned that the FSA report failed to include the results of a major European Union funded study that ended in April 2009. This study, which involved 31 research and university institutions, concluded that “levels of a range of nutritionally desirable compounds (e.g. antioxidants, vitamins, glycosinolates) were shown to be higher in organic crops” and “levels of nutritionally undesirable compounds (e.g. mycotoxins, glycoalkaloids, Cadmium and Nickel) were shown to be lower in organic crops,” according to the Soil Association. Why did the FSA leave out this important study – along with many others – that illustrate the nutritional benefits of organic food? Paula Crossfield, in the Huffington Post, explains:
The FSA is a branch of the government of the United Kingdom, but states on it's website that it "works at 'arm's length' from Government because it doesn't report to a specific minister and is free to publish any advice it issues." With no oversight, influence over the selected research could have been a factor in the outcomes. A look at the profiles of the head of FSA reveals former employees of agribusinesses like Arla Foods (now part of Europe's largest dairy), Sarah Lee Corporation, and UK grocery giant Sainsbury's. Therefore it is not hard to assume that the perspective may lean towards what is best for agribusiness interests.” (“Organic Versus Conventional Food: UK Report Flawed,” July 30, 2009).
If nutritional loss in food is the cause of all this uproar, it should be discussed that all food has continually lost nutritional value since the 1950s. It has been surmised, by inside and outside the organic community, that it is caused by conventional farming practices: loss of topsoil, mega-farms, overuse of land, irresponsible irrigation practices, and the pouring of chemicals into the earth to make up for lack of sustainable farming practices. Even the FSA report states that “the differences [higher nutrition in organic food] detected in content of nutrients… between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are biologically plausible and most likely relate to differences in crop or animal management, and soil quality” (emphasis added). That is, after all, the whole point of organically grown vegetables, meats, and dairy – to make a positive change in animal management and soil quality.
The media also portrays false results with the general announcement that organic food is not healthy. The Reuters headline reads, “organic food is no healthier, study finds” and the first sentence states that “organic food has no nutritional or health benefits over ordinary food, according to a major study published Wednesday” (July 29, 2009). What about the absence of pesticides, herbicides and hormones found in conventional foods? There are many studies that prove organic diets eliminate those toxins from the body – the question remains as to whether or not those toxins are unhealthy. That is often the deciding factor on buying organic food – people believe that these toxins are indeed, unhealthy.
Other reasons that people eat organic food include taste (which is arguably subjective); to support sustainable farming practices for environmental reasons; the positive outcome of the world’s food production; animal welfare; an attempt to eliminate fossil fuel dependency; and a general knowledge that the earth cannot continue to sustain industrialized agricultural practices. In a New York Times editorial, Wes Jackson and Wendall Berry state it clearly:
Agriculture has too often involved an insupportable abuse and waste of soil, ever since the first farmers took away the soil-saving cover and roots of perennial plants. Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice. To the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has added pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams... Industrial agricultural has made our food supply entirely dependent on fossil fuels… Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable. We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities.
For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billons of dollars to the agribusiness corporations.
In other words, the food will be gone if we do not radically change our current agricultural practices. And this is why many people choose to buy organic food. Still, the environmental debate between organic and locally grown continues on. Which option is truly better for the environment? The question is more related to sustainability practices of moving the food rather than growing it – the best option is locally grown, organic food. If that is absent, then choices must be made. But we must avoid letting the mega food industry and their side-kick, the overly dramatic media, push the world away from the sustainable food movement. Organic food and sustainable farming practices are the hope for a better world – at least a healthier one, for everyone involved.