I heard a talk by a scientist from the Soil Association the other day (the Soil Association is the UK’s leading organic charity). In it, he said he believed organic food was healthier than non-organic food but he couldn’t prove it. An interesting way of putting it given his affiliation, but I have to say a pretty honest way. I also believe organic food is healthier and I also don’t have any scientific evidence for that belief.
So why do I believe it? Well first off, there is the argument from adaptation. Humans evolved as hunter gatherers and only switched away from that lifestyle relatively recently in biological terms. So we have a digestive system tooled up for a very different diet to the one we are now obliged to eat. Organic food is slightly closer to our original diet than non-organic, so our bodies may be better suited to cope with it. I have to say this isn’t a very strong argument. Organically grown crops are still a pretty long way from picking up wild food straight out of the woods.
A stronger argument is that organic food is likely to be richer in micro nutrients than non-organic. The whole point of using fertilisers is that you provide the plant with the thing that is in short supply in the soil. Typically this is nitrate. The plants will keep growing until they run out of nitrate. Supply more nitrate and more plant material is produced. Farmers can improve crop yields by around a third by this method. But in doing so the other nutrients must get stretched further. So things we need in small quantities like say, selenium would get spread out into a larger volume of plant matter, so you get less in a mouthful. So all other things being equal an organic vegetable might be expected to contain more nutrienst than a non-organic one.
I do know that organic grades of some oils do have a wider range of components than similar non-organic grades, which sort of fits in. But it is still a pretty weak argument. I can’t point to any specific study that highlights any link between eating non-organic food and any particular health problem caused by lack of a particular nutrient. It also comes with a moral backlash. If there are hungry people in the world is it right to grow food deliberately inefficiently just because we believe it is slightly better for us? Because we can be sure of one thing. Since modern farming techniques were adopted between the war the population of the world has increased enormously, life spans have increased, cancer rates have declined and we are all a lot healthier. It is quite a sobering thought that male life expectancy in the UK in 1900 was only 42. Non-organic food really can’t be all that bad for you.
The other feature of organic products is the avoidance of pesticides. Now on the whole I don’t want to eat pesticides and if food can be got to me without using them, why not chose that one. But I have to say that I am not all that bothered by the risk to me personally of tiny traces of pesticides in the food I eat. I remember very well the controversy surrounding pesticides in the seventies. The book that brought the issue to the attention of the public was Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. This is often described as one of the founding texts of the environmental movement and was certainly highly influential. It certainly was on me.
Rachel Carson is one of those people like Jesus and Karl Marx who would probably be appalled by what their followers have done in their name. I really think that a lot of greenies really would do well to read it. Likewise her detractors always seem to be arguing with points that she never made. The problem she identified was that pesticides, DDT was the main one, don’t behave in the field the way they do in the lab. DDT isn’t actually all that toxic. While the controversy was still current one of the advocates of DDT took to publicly eating large doses of it to demonstrate his confidence in its safety. He came to no harm. (If anyone knows who he was I would love to know, especially if he is still alive)
The point Rachel Carson made very well was that it wasn’t so much the toxicity of the pesticides that caused the problem, but that they were persistent and tended to accumulate. If anything they, weren’t toxic enough. Insects would eat a lot of crop and accumulate a fair bit before they died. In the meantime birds would eat the now pesticide rich insects and they would start to accumulate even larger quantities. This didn’t actually kill the birds, but it did slightly affect the thickness of the shells, making it difficult for the birds to raise young. The Silent Spring of the title referred to the risk that one spring no birds would be born and the fields would no longer hear their song.
Rachel Carson was a meticulous scientist and put a lot of hard work into piecing together the picture. We owe her a great debt and I hope the 50th anniversary of the publication of her book gets plenty of media coverage. One of the key points to take from her work is that toxicity is only one small part of the picture when it comes to assessing risks. Anyone focusing on toxicity really does have an nineteen fifties mindset, like the DDT eating scientist. In fairness to him, he was living in the fifties. One of the most stupid slogans I have heard recently is ‘toxins in, toxins out’. If you hear someone coming out with that one, you know straight away that they don’t know what they are talking about. Rachel Carson herself never called for a ban on the use of pesticides, she just wanted them to be used intelligently.
So, you may be wondering, why do I pay a premium to eat organic carrots if I am not worried about pesticides and can only marshal two rather weak arguments in their favour and I am not even sure whether growing them is ethical? Basically it is because despite being a scientist I am well aware that there are things that are true that haven’t yet been proved and which might never be proved. So when considering health I not only to consider what the learned papers are saying but also to listen to what me body tells me.
When you smoke a cigarette, you know straight away that it is affecting you. In my case, I was sick after the first one. I managed to overcome this by the end of my first packet, but I still noticed a burning feeling in my mouth. I also hated the smell of my clothes afterwards. I got to the end of the second packet but I had already decided to give up when I found myself coughing every time I smoked. I think I only finished them because I had paid for them and didn’t want to waste the money. I think I can honestly say that the risk of lung cancer played no part in my decision to give up smoking. You just don’t worry about that kind of thing when you are a teenager. But everything about the experience was screaming that it was a bad move.
Likewise when you eat a lot of processed food you notice physiological changes. The one we all pick up is that you put on weight. But there are other effects as well – you feel tired maybe. In my case, I get mild but annoying chronic toothache. Basically, your body is telling you that you are not treating it well.
When I avoid too much processed food on the other hand, which basically means eating more fruit and raw veg, I have less trouble sleeping and I feel more alert. I take this as a message from my body that it approves my choice.
So what does my body tell me when I eat organic food rather than non-organic food. In general, not very much. Organic chocolate gets exactly the same thumbs down from my body that ordinary chocolate does. Likewise, premium priced organic pies are just as debilitating, and just as delicious, as the cheaper ones. I keep trying this experiment actually. I do love a pie.
The issue seems to be the degree of processing, and in particular how concentrated the energy is the food, rather than whether or not it is organic. Your pancreas does not distinguish between organic and non-organic sugar molecules. If your blood sugar levels are elevated, you get swings in your insulin levels making you tired and quite often hungry again. It doesn’t hugely matter if the processing is done by a company with a certificate from an organic approval body. If carbohydrates are being concentrated and refined I find it upsets my energy levels.
So if I listen to my body, it tells me that I am better off eating fruit and raw vegetables than I am eating highly processed organic food with a label proving that it has been made to organic standards.
But how about a direct comparison of organic versus non-organic fruit and vegetables? Well I have to say, it has taken me a while to pick up any difference. But on the whole, I think that organic produce does make me feel a bit better some of the time. There are exceptions. I keep trying organic celery, and I keep ending up throwing it away because it tastes horrible. But I have tried organic apples and they both taste better and give me a better feel than non organic ones. I wouldn’t hesitate to eat a non-organic apple, and I still buy non-organic ones when they are particularly cheap. That last is a bit silly because I can easily afford the better ones, but none of us are entirely logical.
But the big revelation is carrots. I tend to eat a couple of carrots instead of a sandwich most lunchtimes, so I have got pretty used to them. Organic carrots don’t taste as sweet as non-organic ones, so at first I preferred the non-organic ones. But I found that if I ate a lot of them I began to feel a bit sick. I also find that the non organic ones have a tendency to soften on the inside if you keep them very long. There is something very disconcerting and rather unpleasant about a non-crunchy carrot.
So there is my approach. Fresh and raw is better than processed. If it is processed it makes no difference whether or not it is organic. Fresh organic is better than fresh non-organic, but I’ll take non-organic without too much concern. I listen to the science, but I listen to my body too. And if something is claimed to be healthy, I want to be able to feel the health benefit.
Thanks to Stevedepolo on Flickr for the colourful and earthy picture of carrots that came out of his garden.