We dig out the facts from the manure
For the past five years Margo O’Neill has chosen to live on a diet consisting almost entirely of organic food. Although she admits her £200-a-week shopping bill would be lower if she bought ordinary fare, O’Neill insists the benefits outweigh the costs.
“The food tastes better and it gives me more energy,” said O’Neill, a grandmother from Hampstead, north London. She is a firm believer that organic food is healthier. So she was more than a little vexed when the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published a report last week saying the opposite.
The government body claimed a comprehensive review of scientific evidence showed that people who believe organic food – which, on average, costs 60% more than ordinary food – is healthier are wasting their money. “There is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food,” declared Gill Fine, the FSA’s director of dietary health.
The controversial findings touched a raw nerve. Within hours of the report’s publication, hate mail began to flood into the author’s e-mail inbox. Organic industry experts took to the airwaves to brand the FSA’s methodology “flawed”; and the Soil Association, which represents organic farmers, accused the FSA of “following the dogma of the conventional food industry”.
Richard Corrigan, an Irish chef who runs two central London restaurants, was even blunter. “As a professional cooking food for 33 years,” he said, “I can tell you that anyone who says organic food tastes worse than the stuff you get on a supermarket shelf needs to put his head in my deep-fat fryer.”
Rather than sweeping away misconceptions, the report appeared to entrench people’s existing beliefs. “I don’t care what they claim,” said O’Neill, sitting outside a bustling Planet Organic supermarket in central London. “It’s never going to change my mind.”
In contrast, Keith Lewis, a 43-year-old telecoms engineer, felt his long-standing scepticism about organic food had been vindicated. “I’ve always suspected there was something dubious about the organic claims, mainly because it costs so much more,” he said.
“It’s primarily an appearance thing, where if you pay that extra price you’re somehow proving you’re doing your bit for the world.
“Well, here [the report] is and it says organic food is a load of rubbish – it’s an emperor’s clothes moment, I hope.”
Who is right? And even if organic food is no more nutritious than other produce, does that comprehensively torpedo the case for buying it?
FOR centuries food was produced largely without intensive industrial methods and artificial chemicals – in other words, organically. Only during the later 20th century did farmers start regularly to use new, and often untested, synthetic chemicals to increase crop yields.
In the 1980s, as public disquiet grew over animal welfare and the use of fertilisers, demand grew for a return to a more ecological style of farming. Organic food production increased by about 20% a year, far ahead of the rest of the industry. In the past five years sales of organic food in Britain almost doubled, from less than £900m in 2003 to about £2 billion last year, although they are believed to have dipped in the recession.
The backing of celebrity chefs, as well as the Prince of Wales and his Duchy Originals range, took the movement into middle-class homes. But evidence for its health benefits has been mixed, with a number of studies reaching contradictory conclusions. It led David Miliband, then environment secretary, to say in 2007 that buying organic was a “lifestyle choice that people can make”.
The purpose of the FSA study was to clear up the confusion once and for all. Led by Alan Dangour, a public health nutritionist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, researchers sifted some 50 years of studies into organic food, analysing nutritional reviews of fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meat.
However, Dangour’s analysis was narrower than its scope at first appears. Of 162 relevant studies identified, only 55 were deemed to be of “satisfactory quality”. While the 55 studies did show that organic food had higher levels of acidity and phosphorous, and conventional food had more nitrates, Dangour concluded that these results were irrelevant.
“There is no shortage of phosphorous in our diet and acidity is about taste. Neither have any relevance to public health,” said Dangour. The FSA concluded that the analysis turned up no “statistically significant” differences between organic and non-organic food for 20 of 23 nutritional categories.
The organic industry was swift to disagree. Other experts greeted the results with a combination of fury and disbelief. Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, said: “I’ve read the report and the devil is in the detail. The detail clearly shows there are real differences in nutrition.”
The FSA researchers do acknowledge higher levels of some beneficial nutrients in organic compared with nonorganic foods. In organic vegetables the research recorded 53.7% more beta-carotene – which is believed to help protect against heart disease and cancer – as well as 38.4% more flavonoids, 12.7% more proteins and 11.3% more zinc.
The FSA insists these were not relevant because of the overall level of statistical error in the research. Melchett retorts that Dangour selected unreliable reports. “They included ‘shopping basket’ studies [analyses of items people have bought without taking account of factors such as date of harvest], which are very variable and unreliable,” said Melchett.
“If you include such studies, you get lots of variation, allowing you to declare the whole thing statistically insignificant. It is supposed to be a report, not an opinion piece. But it is designed in a way that almost guarantees they are able to claim there is no difference.
“They also excluded all the most recent science. The European Union has just commissioned the biggest research project in the world to look into the differences between organic and non-organic.
“I’m angry and perplexed. We genuinely expected the FSA to report the facts. That’s their job. I’m deeply disappointed that they haven’t. I think it’s outrageous.”
One study that Dangour excluded from his report is an EU-funded four-year study by Carlo Leifert, professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University. Leifert’s paper, which was peer-reviewed, found that organic milk contained 60% more antioxidants and healthy fatty acids than normal milk. Results from his crop studies suggest vitamin levels are up to a fifth higher in organic tomatoes, wheat and onions.
Last week Leifert claimed that the FSA study was misleading. “They have ignored all the recent literature as well as new primary research which shows the heath advantages of organic,” he said. “They admit in their own research that some compounds are 50% higher in organic. How can you call that a non-significance?”
He added: “I’m not happy and I intend to rip their study apart in scientific journals.”
MANY consumers and the organic lobby are also bemused that the FSA study takes no account of pesticides and fertilisers. Even if organic food had no nutritional benefits, they say, it would still be better for your health because it uses far fewer pesticides and fertilisers.
Peter Kindersley, co-founder of the publisher Dorling Kindersley and who runs the 2,250-acre Sheepdrove organic farm in Berkshire, said: “Everyone I talk to just dismisses the FSA. They’ve taken a very narrow view of the issue – the nutrition debate. There is a much wider issue here – pesticides, the environment and sustainability. If the FSA really wanted to do something about nutrition they’d be shouting loudly that we need to go organic and move away from fertilisers.
“Studies have shown these chemicals have an effect on people but the truth is we simply don’t know the full long-term impact. Nobody wants to fund research. It’s a deplorable system that the FSA are trying to shore up.”
Simon Wright, a food consultant for Organic Fair Plus, said concern over the long-term health impact of pesticides and hormones contained in conventional foods is one of the main reasons why people buy organic. “It’s a cocktail effect,” he said. “A variety of pesticides and other chemicals are applied at legal levels but interacting in a way impossible to predict.”
Dangour acknowledges the point, admitting that “the herbicide and pesticide issue is probably worthy of further research”.
However, whether such concerns justify paying the price of organic food is a moot point. As public attitudes have changed, so has the conventional food industry. Several toxic pesticides have been banned and standards of animal husbandry have improved, chipping away at the advantages that organic produce is supposed to have.
There have also been concerns that not all organic food is as free of chemicals as claimed. A recent EU report, which included the UK, found pesticides in some organic products. Most of the organically grown cereals, fruit and vegetables tested contained traces of pesticides below or at the legal limit, but 1.24% were contaminated with toxic residue above the limit, with a potential threat to health.
Amid all these claims and counter-claims, critics suggest that the organic label has become a marketing device as much as a sign of distinctive standards. Instead, they say, the real issue is choosing between well farmed food, organic or otherwise, and bad food created by cheap, industrial farming methods.
A A Gill, the Sunday Times restaurant critic, said: “Organic has no more meaning than a marketing tool.”
In a world that loves branding, the organic label has become a social issue, he suggested: “What I really mind about all this is that organic is making food into a class issue.
“Organic brings back this pre-war system of posh, politically correct food for Notting Hill people; and filthy, rubbish chemical food for filthy, rubbish chemical people. Either you are a nice organic person or you are a filthy, overweight McDonald’s person. I find that really obscene. It has very little to do with food and a lot to do with weird snobbery.”
The real point now is quality, not whether food carries the organic label, he says.
“Most farmers, if they go to the bother of getting a Soil Association accreditation, do it because they can charge more. The organic industry is driven by commercialism,” Gill said.
“The truth is, if you are blindfolded you cannot tell the difference. The real difference is between food produced by good farming and bad farming.”
It is a view with which Dangour, who declined to say whether he buys organic food, appears to have some sympathy. “You know, I make my choices based on health and I’m a nutritionist,” he said. “I do all the cooking and all the shopping at home and I choose what’s healthy for me and my family.”
After all, whichever side you take over the conflicting claims, it is worth remembering that for healthy eating you are probably better off with a non-organic apple than a 100% organic beef burger.
What counts as organic?
To qualify for organic status, farmers must adhere to strict limits on artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Instead, pests and diseases are controlled using wildlife and, typically, clover is grown to boost nitrogen in the soil in place of fertilisers. High standards of animal husbandry must be adhered to and all poultry must be free-range. Drugs, antibiotics and wormers are allowed only in emergencies and genetically modified animal feed is banned.
KNOWING YOUR ONIONS
How much more expensive is organic produce?
According to a study by Which? magazine, organic food on average costs 60% more than ordinary produce. But there are huge variations, depending on the product: it may be as little as 10% more, or as much as three times the price.
The higher prices are due to weaker economies of scale. Organic produce is generally grown on smaller farms and often needs to be transported separately. Limits on the number of animals per acre also bump up prices and the lack of fertilisers means yields are between 10% and 50% less than conventional farming.
Is free-range organic?
Not necessarily. Free-range animals are allowed more space and movement; but to qualify as organic, hens must be fed certified organic feed.
Will organic produce get cheaper?
The industry says the price gap will shrink as economies of scale improve and the cost of conventional food rises. It says nitrogen fertilisers and pesticides derived from oil are bound to become more expensive.
How big is the organic industry now?
Farms run on organic lines take up 4% of the UK’s agricultural land but supply a substantial market. Sales of organic food reached £2 billion in the UK last year and, according to the Soil Association, 90% of households bought some form of organic product.