The UK Food Standards Agency recently issued a report claiming that there is no evidence of any significant benefits to human health from consuming organic foods. However, the report has faced a barrage of criticism on the ground that it was based on what could best be described as rather limited research:
• It did not include papers that were not written in English – estimated to be about half of all good-quality studies.
• It did not include research from the European Union published in April 2009.
• It ignored a study by scientists at Rhode Island Hospital which found a substantial link between increased levels of nitrates in our environment and food, with increased deaths from diseases, including Alzheimer's, diabetes mellitus and Parkinson's. The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Alzheimer's Disease (Volume 17:3 July 2009) after the FSA had concluded their research but, as everyone knew that the study was on-going, why did they not wait until it was published?
• It did not use the accepted British centres of excellence in this field (such as the Nafferton Ecological Farming Group at Newcastle University) to carry out the study but the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – a centre of excellence, but not in this field.
Health aside, many people chose to buy organic for other reasons such as the welfare of the environment and farm animals. Video footage of tractors ploughing fields 40 years ago show a sizeable number of birds gobbling up worms and bugs while intensive farming is known to have a negative impact on the future of many endangered species. (A staggering 5 million skylarks are estimated to have vanished in the past 30 years as a result of agricultural intensification.) However, significantly more birds, butterflies, beetles, bats and wild flowers are to be found on organic farms.
There is much less run-off of nutrients, which cause algal blooms in coastal waters, from organic farms, compared to other farms.
Organic farming encourages practices which are climate- change friendly, such as the use of solar powered fertility through crops like red clover that fix nitrogen into the soil for subsequent crops.
As organically farmed animals are encouraged to pursue natural behaviour, their quality of life is generally better. Most organic farms with livestock have free-range animals and birds.
We also know little about the long-term complications which may result from eating intensively grown food. Scientists at Emory University the University of Washington found that by substituting elementary-school-age children's foods with just organic products, the concentration of the organophosphorus pesticides malathion and chlorpyrifos found in their bodies decreased substantially to non-detectable levels until the conventional diets were reintroduced. An elementary-school child will most likely live another 70, 80 or even 90 years.
Can we afford to ignore potential long-term complications?
For a fuller report or, for the FSA report
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First Published in November 2009
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