Most news stories are bad news about things we can’t do anything about. There really isn’t any point in worrying about things outside our control, but most of us do anyway. But stories about health and the environment sometimes do suggest that there is something we can do in response. We can’t stop people in the Middle East killing each other but we can choose what kinds of food we eat. There was just such a news story on the radio this morning with the release of a study that shows that organic food is different to conventional food. This was the background to a debate on BBC Radio 4 between a nutritionist and a representative of the Soil Association.
Scientifically it was a bit of a damp squib. This isn’t new data, it is a summary of a couple of hundred previous studies. This can be a useful thing to do – you never know what is hiding in the data. But in this case the conclusions were rather predictable. Organic food has lower pesticide residues. It would be rather surprising if they didn’t since avoiding pesticides is one of the points of organic food production. It has higher antioxidant levels and lower levels of some heavy metals including cadmium.
As I say, none of this is surprising. Organic food production is different to conventional food production so you would expect the end result to be different. The question the nutritionist pointed out hadn’t been answered was whether or not that difference was significant for human health. Low levels of pesticides don’t have any obvious health problems for the consumers. Maybe they are there but we just haven’t found them yet. But we can be sure that they aren’t huge or else they would have been noticed by now. We also have the currently unexplained increase in life expectancy that matches pretty closely the adoption of pesticides. If they are unhealthy they really can’t be that unhealthy.
As to the antioxidants, these are often touted as being healthy components of the diet. This sounds quite believable and may well be true, but again actual evidence is thin on the ground.
So for now we don’t know whether you are going to be healthier if you eat a diet that consists of a large amount of organic compared to a similar non-organic one. There is pretty good evidence that a diet rich in fresh vegetables of any origin has some health benefits.
The conclusions I draw are that it doesn’t matter for your health too much whether you eat organic or not. But that doesn’t mean it is an unimportant choice. The way we grow our food is a big decision we make when it comes to how we relate to the planet. Organic food production is good in that it requires less stuff to grow it. You don’t need to buy in fertiliser and pesticides from big corporations. It also doesn’t have as big an impact on the planet – you don’t get pesticides and fertilisers running off into water courses. On the other hand it takes more land to grow the same amount of organic food, so it causes greater loss of habitat than conventional farming. Also organic food is more expensive, so if we need to eat a lot of fresh fruit and veg organic farming makes this harder to do.
My conclusion is that we need to keep the organic food sector going. We don’t have that many ways of producing food. In fact we only have four – conventional, hunting and gathering, hydroponics and organic. That is definitely not too many. With a growing world population who is to say what will be needed in the future? We might need the alternative methods and above all alternative plant varieties in the future. Organic is a valuable part of the overall mix of food production.
So I always try to buy some organic produce when I visit a supermarket. But I don’t worry about my health when I eat conventional.
Br J Nutr. 2014 Jun 26:1-18. [Epub ahead of print]Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Bara?ski M1, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, Seal C, Sanderson R, Stewart GB, Benbrook C, Biavati B, Markellou E, Giotis C, Gromadzka-Ostrowska J, Rembia?kowska E, Skwar?o-So?ta K, Tahvonen R, Janovská D, Niggli U, Nicot P, Leifert C.