Science

The Weekly Scientist on Organic Food

I recently asked a friend to buy me a pint of milk. He came back with some organic milk. Being a student, obviously my first, and frankly only, concern was that there was one less drink I could buy at Ocean. However, my friend was eager to point out how much more nutritious and healthier organic milk was – not to mention the environmental benefits it had. With the thought of that lost drink on my mind, I was unable to argue back. I therefore decided to do a real investigation into how much truth there was to these claims and dispel some well-established myths regarding organic food.

Over the years more and more research has come out to show that in actual fact there is no difference in nutritional value between food grown by conventional farming or organic farming. This is research supported by none other than the Food Standards Agency as well as its European counterparts. Furthermore, organic food has actually been shown to have lower levels of nitrates and protein. Yet, for some reason these facts tend to be forgotten when we hear how amazing organic food is.

The standard pro-organic food argument is that there aren’t any pesticides used, which are said to reduce the health benefits of non-organic food. However, it should come as no surprise that all food is tested by independent regulatory experts, organic and non-organic alike. There are laws in place to protect the public from high doses of chemicals. These levels have been scientifically calculated to be safe, and just to be sure, have a large safety margin placed on top of them. Of the foods tested — normally the most high risk ones (i.e. high volumes of pesticides used) — 70% don’t even have trace amounts of pesticides, let alone enough to do any harm to the consumer. Moreover, the use of other chemicals, such as fungicides, has been scientifically shown to reduce cancer rates due to the elimination of potentially hazardous fungi. Without these chemicals, organic food will perish faster than conventionally cultivated food, which only makes organic food even more expensive. And let’s not forget that some pesticides are permitted for use with organic food as well.

And so we reach the main argument in favour of organic food: the environment. I, like many, certainly don’t do enough to help the environment, but is eating organic food the answer? It has been shown that organic farms have up to a 15 per cent increase in biodiversity (variety of life forms) compared with conventional farms, a fact which is hard to argue with. However, what is often overlooked is one very simple principle: yield. This can vary over several years, but on average an organic farm can require up to twice the land necessary to produce the same quantity of food as a conventional farm. So although there is a 15 per cent increase in biodiversity, it comes at a cost of twice as much land. Therefore, in theory, a conventional farm can have areas fully devoted to wildlife such as woods and hedgerows, whereas an organic farm must use every acre. A conventional farm requires the occasional spray of pesticide or renewal of soil nutrients whereas an organic farm requires constant mechanical weeding and will, over time, accumulate mineral deficiencies in the soil. What impact will the additional machinery fumes and soil deficiencies have on the environment?

All of these factors mean that more work is required to maintain a proper organic farm and this reflects in the price of organic food. Obesity is obviously a major issue, not just here, but all over the western world; hence, the benefits of cheap and plentiful fruit and vegetables are unquestionable. So is the future really going to be organic? One day I’d like to be able to grow my own fruit and vegetables so I can enjoy fresh produce whenever I want, but until that day comes, I think I’ll pass on the organics.

Richard Wall

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2 Comments on this post.
  • charu
    3 March 2011 at 11:47
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    Well done Rich. The arguments are indeed thought-provoking. Nonetheless, one can’t deny the fact that there is a special sense of personal gratification upon buying an organic produce, for a minority at least, – – sharing the farmer’s effort (who often sees a very small profit). So, the drive to consume organic foods is not maniacal after all!

  • Patrick
    3 March 2011 at 18:21
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    Very interesting. I would like to see a wider scale of your experiment and if you would publish your results that would be great. I think the results might be a bit different here in the US.

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