According to an editorial in a recent edition of one of the UK’s main farming magazines, ‘the organic lobby’ makes ‘claims that are at odds with mainstream thinking’, and upsets non-organic farmers in the process.
The Soil Association says ‘that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally produced food’, something the magazine called ‘a useful marketing ploy’ not supported by ‘the bulk of scientific opinion’.
Non-organic farmers regularly note that organic food is generally more expensive than non-organic, and therefore simply a ‘niche’ product. But any rational, science-based explanation of why that is the case, and why it results in a better product, is dismissed as ‘hostility’ towards non-organic, and an attempt to disparage non-organic (‘mainstream’) farming and food.
Non-organic farming interests claim to respect science yet manage to get the evidence spectacularly wrong. Just how wrong has just been confirmed in a major study published by the European Parliament’s independent Research Service in a major report ‘Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture’.
Organic food sales have been growing strongly for three years, and as organic food sales rise, so it seems do attacks on organic - just as they did between 2000 and 2008. Certainly the great debate about the price of organic food hasn’t gone away. We know that organic food is generally more expensive than non-organic, but it can be hard to explain why in a few words. For example, organic standards require not just free range but with smaller flock sizes, lower stocking densities (the amount of space allowed for each bird, pig or cow), and cows and sheep eating mainly forage diets and no GM animal feed, all often leading to higher costs for organic farmers.
The consequences for the consumer include far lower use of antibiotics, and organic meat with more desirable poly-unsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids, and less myristic and palmitic acid, which are potentially harmful saturated fatty acids. With dairy products organic milk contains significantly higher concentrations of total omega-3 fatty acids, including over 50% more of the nutritionally desirable Very Long Chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DPA and DHA).
Organic farmers do not use manufactured fertiliser, leading generally to lower yields and higher costs for the farmer, and the consequences for the consumer are that organic crops and processed foods (such as bread, baby food, fruit juice and wine) have more desirable antioxidants/(poly)phenolics and less potentially harmful cadmium, nitrogen and pesticide residues than their non-organic counterparts.
Organic farming may impose some higher costs on the farmer, met in large part by organic consumers, but it frequently delivers lower costs for society as a whole, for example lower costs in water treatment to remove pesticides, or public benefits, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions by storing up to 450kg more soil carbon per hectare, providing more jobs and supporting on average 50% more farmland wildlife (Bengtsson et al, 2005).
All these differences are based on peer-reviewed meta-analyses (pulling together the results of hundreds of individual studies) - a gold standard for scientific evidence. The three nutritional meta-analyses (on crops - veg, fruit, grains and pulses - on dairy, and on meat) are available here. The research agenda has moved on, to investigate whether the accepted nutritional differences lead to different health outcomes (a different question). Given the scale of the differences in some nutritionally desirable outcomes, it would be surprising if the researchers find no actual health impacts.
Indeed, the small number of studies done so far do suggest a human health impact of eating organic food - but it is still early days in a complex area of research. For example, in the four human cohort studies that have been carried out, both organic vegetable and/or dairy productions were associated with a range of positive health impacts including a reduced risk of eczema and genital deformation in new-born boys, and preeclampsia (causes illness and deaths) during pregnancy (Christensen et al. 2013; Torjusen et al. 2014; Brantsæter et al. 2015). A human cohort study into the effect of organic milk consumption on eczema in children younger than 2 years in the Netherlands reported that eczema was significantly reduced in children from families consuming organic rather than non-organic milk (Kummerling et al. 2008). The authors suggested that this may have been caused by the higher n-3 fatty acid concentrations in organic milk, since there is increasing evidence for anti-allergic effects of n-3 fatty acids (Calder et al. 2010).
The EU Parliament’s Think Tank goes further. They report on ‘the existing scientific evidence regarding the impact of organic food on human health’, and also ‘the potential contribution of organic management practices to the development of healthy food systems’. They note that ‘consumers of organic food tend to have healthier dietary patterns overall’ and that animal experiments ‘suggest that identically composed feed from organic or conventional production has different impacts on early development and physiology’, although the significance of these findings for human health is unclear.
The scientific review covers the impact of the use of almost no pesticides in organic farming, concluding that: ‘Epidemiological studies point to the negative effects of certain insecticides on children’s cognitive development at current levels of exposure. Such risks can be minimised with organic food, especially during pregnancy and in infancy’. Finally, the review assesses the impact of the widespread use of antibiotics in non-organic farm animals, especially pigs, poultry and dairy, which they note is ‘a key driver of antibiotic resistance’. The review states that: ‘prevention of animal disease and more restrictive use of antibiotics, as practiced in organic production, could minimise this risk, with potentially considerable benefits for public health’.
In the New Year the Oxford Real Farming Conference will be discussing the health impacts of organic farming and food (on 5th January at 09:00). Professor Leifert (Newcastle University and lead scientist on the three meta-analyses) will be speaking on ‘Is there evidence that organic food consumption has a positive impact on animal or human health’, with contributions from three other scientists - Dr Anne-Maie Mayer (independent nutritionist), Dr Marcin Baranski (Newcastle University) and Dr Chuck Benbook (USA).
This clear scientific evidence explaining the differences in quality, and price, of organic, is not ‘hostility’ towards non-organic. In fact we are simply telling the truth about why organic food sometimes costs a bit more, and - crucially - why it is worth it! In other European countries, organic and non-organic coexist without the better quality of organic being seen as an attack on, or a threat to, non-organic farming. In other UK industries it is generally accepted that some products are higher quality and therefore cost more, without this being seen as ‘hostility’ - why not in farming? It really is time for non-organic farming in the UK to stop treating any description of quality in food production as a threat to the whole industry, rather than welcome diversity.