This week saw the publishing of a meta-analysis of studies conducted over the past fifty years which looked at the “nutritional content, or any additional health benefits” of organic food. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) conducted this analysis in order to review the nutritional content of various foods.
The study was commissioned by the UK based Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the results have sparked yet more debate on the contentious issue of whether or not “organic food is better for you”. Like many of my readers, I would like to make sure that the foods I am eating are nutritionally complete, and that I am getting the best value for my hard earned money. Over the past ten years I have noticed more and more organic food populating the shelves of my grocery store and now I can buy everything from organic fruit to organic chocolate.
But why would I choose to do so? Organic foods are those which are grown “naturally”, or to be more specific (and according to Organic South Africa, a local pro-organic organisation) should follow the following guidelines;
- Organic Agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of the soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.
- Organic Agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
- Organic Agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.
- Organic Agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well being of current and future generations and the environment.
Essentially, organic farming uses crop rotation, green manure (a type of crop grown primarily to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil), compost, biological pest control and mechanical cultivation. Proponents of organic agriculture claim that these farming methods not only provide us with more nutritious foods, but also cause less harm to animals and the environment.
This all sounds very nice, but the results of the meta-analysis show that organic foods do not contain significantly higher proportions of vitamins, minerals or other nutrients than conventionally grown or reared foods. This begs the question; if they are not actually any better for my body, and they cost more, why should I buy organic foods?
This is a question which His Royal Highness Prince Charles has found an easy answer to, according to Lord Melchett, the policy director of the Soil Association and a close friend of HRH;
Of course he does, he has a vested interest in organic food. Seriously though, why should I buy far more expensive food which does not offer any real benefit over commercially grown alternatives?
Another major claim made by the proponents of organic farming is that the pesticides, hormones and anti-biotics used in conventional farming are harmful to the environment and to people and animals living within it. This is a very important part of the debate and one which was not addressed by the researchers at the LSHTM because it falls outside of their fields of knowledge. The US based Environmental Protection Agency has a very well balanced website designed to help you make careful choices when it comes to chemicals on or in your food. I will defer to the experts on this one and await more definitive results.
The final major claim of organic farming proponents which I shall look at is that their preferred methods are less harmful to the environment. Unfortunately there is little evidence to support these claims. A maior criticism (as found by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency) is that organic methods have a far lower crop yield and so farmlands would have to be dramatically increased in order to provide enough foods for the wordls rapidly expanding population. This would, of course, mean the destruction of habitats. Not exactly what I would consider good for the environment.
Supporters of organic farming also decry the use of genetic modification in crops and in so doing tie themselves to an era of farming which the modern world is rapidly leaving behind. GM foods offer us a range of benefits including higher pest resistance, longer shop life and higher nutritional value. In a world where starvation is an ever-present threat, being able to feed more people is of critical importance.
There is a man you may have heard of, his name is Norman Borlaug. I first found out about him on an episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit in which the magician-duo were taking a close, and not particularly flattering look at Organic Farming. If ever there was a man who deserves the respect and admiration of every person on the planet, he would be Norman Borlaug. His pioneering work in genetic modification of wheat to produce a high-yeild, disease-resistant food crop has saved HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF LIVES! Please watch the embedded video below, it is relevant and worth watching.
Any farming method which distances itself from such innovations based on a flawed belief, that GM food are somehow bad for us, is crippled from the outset. As of today, 3 August 2009, the worlds population is estimated to be 6,775 Billion people. That’s 6 775 000 000 hungry people. We have to think BIG if we are going to cope.