Sunday, August 02, 2009

organic food isn't a health fad

Last week the Food Standards Agency published a report showing that organic food has no nutritional advantage over crops produced by conventional farming.

It was swiftly criticised for not looking into the negative effects on health of the agrichemicals in non-organic food. It's kind of like saying that as neither of the two people in front of you is patting you on the head they're being identically nice, because we haven't looked down to check if one of them is kicking your shins.

The Soil Association took issue with the report, citing - from the studies used by the report itself - positive nutritional differences for organic food. But they, and the reporting in general, miss the major point. There are other very important reasons to eat organic.

As a nation, we're used to food health scares. In the wake of botulism, salmonella and all the rest we were sold GM crops as a possible threat to the wellbeing of those who eat it. It's certainly something to be looked into, but the indisputable detrimental effects of GM crops are corporate control of the food supply and - what even the pro-GM governments trials proved - the detrimental effect on wildlife.

By the same token, non-organic farming is not just a health issue for those eating it today. When, some time in the next generation or so, we pass the point of peak oil and the price rockets upward forever, we're going to need alternatives. The oil-derived agrichemicals we rely on for today's bumper monoculture harvests are going to become prohibitively expensive. Developing advanced organic methods is a sound investment for keeping our cupboards full in future.

It's not just giving ourselves a headstart of good techniques either, it's also preventing regression. Conventional farming uses vast quantities of artificial nitrate fertilisers. About a third of them are actually consumed as food. The rest enters the nitrogen cycle on the land and water. This run-off is having a major impact on biodiversity.

Organic methods rely on interaction with wildlife, by comparison conventional farming assaults it. Destroying biodiversity today hobbles our ability to use it for organic methods in future.

And by the way, how come farming practices that are only used in some of the world, and even then are only two generations old, are 'conventional' and everything else is, by implication, unconventional?

Do agribusiness folks have a different dictionary to me?

The first time I stood in an organic vineyard I knew it was different. There were flowers growing between the rows of vines, flowers in full bloom. The air was alive with the sound of buzzing insects, insects that lived among the flowers, zooming around the vines searching out the pests that prey on grapes.

I was witnessing nature's system of checks and balances in full operation. The vines themselves turned their leaves to the sun, with a sheen on the leaves I hadn't seen in conventional vineyards. Above all, there was a different atmosphere - of life, of vitality. It was such an exciting moment.

- Hilary Wright, The Great Organic Wine Guide

There is another very major reason to eat organic. A significant amount of those fossil-derived nitrate fertilisers breaks down into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times stronger than CO2. Eating organic means less climate change.

Far from being a selfish health fad, it's about promoting a responsible method of food production for all and tackling the most urgent crisis we face. And it gives us an opportunity to do that with every meal we eat.


Jim Bliss said...

I'm hoping to return to blogging over the next few days and this is definitely one of the things I want to write about.

This new report, along with some of the dreadful comment it has generated (the Observer's Science Editor produced one of the most wrong-headed articles I've ever read on any topic) are a demonstration in microcosm of much of what's wrong with modern culture.

That the Science Editor of a major newspaper can, without any apparent irony, speak of "nature" as something separate from us is, perhaps paradoxically, both breathtaking and sadly unsurprising.

It seems we have yet to learn that poisoning our ecology is inherently unhealthy (even if you can't identify a specific cancer that non-organic food produces in a human body). Because we are part of that ecology.

As Bateson writes in Pathologies of Epistemology:

You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is part of your wider eco-mental system – and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.

Stripped of the language of psychodynamic systems-theory, he's basically pointing out that if you pump a bunch of chemicals into your ecology, you are pumping them into yourself.

Dunc said...

This has pissed me right off... Not the report itself, which seems fair enough as far as it goes, but rather the response it's generated. I'm sick of seeing people who should know better fall over themselves to claim that higher levels of "nutritionally beneficial compounds" must automatically translate into actual health benefits, rather than simply refuse to accept that direct consumer health benefits is the correct way to frame the issue. It's got me seriously considering just throwing the towel in and confining all future efforts to my own allotment.

The really scary thing is the number of people in the Green movement that don't seem fully signed-up to the ecological argument. Have we really become just another nutty nutritional fad?

merrick said...


That Observer article is quite astonishing. It's not only for, as you point out, the interesting way it presumes a separate and distinct definition of humans and their activity on the one hand and nature on the other.

It also banner waves for GM, based on the idea that it could possibly be used to develop crops that need less chemicals.

It's not based on any research into what's possible with GM. Nor does it take into account the market reality, namely that GM is done as a money spinner, the whole point is to make a farmer dependent on the chemicals sold by the same firm as the seed, the way Gillette sell cheap handles so you are hooked on their expensive blades, or fucking Epson sold my printer/scanner for 40 quid cos they tie me to ripoff cartridges.


I think Greens have a yearning for certain kinds of answer. We want to believe that the smaller, lower-tech, less damaging and more sustainable solutions work best.

We want to believe organic is better all round. That it may not be true isn't what we want to hear. Unfortunately, we have a duty to go with the evidence, and indeed not doing so is a sort of crying wolf in that it undermines our credibility when we *are* right.

The Soil Association has enough to defend itself without trying to cast aspersions on the study about nutritional value, as Ben Goldacre pointed out.

But with so much of the national conversation being health-obsessed (easier for a me-me-me culture to understand, and it keeps them being good consumers and stops them being troublesome folk working for a broader social good), many stories readily become another fucking health scare.

merrick said...

another thing that undoes the cliam of organic having lower yields (which is only true in unsustainable high-chemical farming) or of the dream of GM to feed the world is that we could simply get round to eating what we grow.

As Tristram Stuart has calculated, North America and Europe throw away enough food to feed the undernourished of the world several times over.

Dunc said...

The yield argument has a lot of hidden variables... High-intensity organic management (such as in the typical allotment site) can easily out-yield even the most chemically-intensive large-scale field agriculture. Then there's questions about other inputs - especially water.

Then, of course, there's the question of what do you actually mean by "yield" - per unit area, per man-hour of labour, per unit of energy input, per hectolitre of irrigation, etc, etc? "Conventional" ag only wins by a really convincing margin on yield per man-hour of labour, and loses pretty badly on yield per unit of energy input.

It seems to me that in the future, we're likely to be much more tightly constrained on water and energy than labour.

At this point, naysayers usually start whinging abut the horrible, back-breaking nature of agricultural labour. They forget that there's a heck of a lot of people doing horrible, back-breaking labour already. I'd sooner shovel manure in the fields that shovel frozen peas in a factory - and I've done both in the past, so I have some basis for the comparison.

Junexpress said...

Really? I don't think so, I'm using organic foods everyday, because we in my family were fresh fruit lover, we have an organic food delivered by nearby store to our house and it is just cash upon delivery, its less hassle in our side and safe.