Should we forget about organic food?

A recent
report by the Food Standards Agency
argues that organic food doesn’t bring any
substantial nutritional benefits compared to conventionally produced food.
This contradicts the conclusions of previous studies suggesting organic food to
be nutritionally superior. As one might have expected, supporters of organic
farming have been critical of the report, yet it is unfortunate that the media
coverage on this issue often gives the impression that organic food has been
shown to be a sham (some consumer groups thus expect shoppers to now
“think
twice before buying organic”
)
and that its advocates are now reduced to using any bad argument they can think
of to prove the contrary. This impression is understandable but misleading.

Thus the
Soil Association, which represents the organic food industry, is quoted as
claiming that the report “doesn't say organic food is not healthier, just that,
according to the criteria they have adopted, there's no proof that it is”; and
also as regretting that the authors chose not to take into account the majority
of the studies on the issue which were produced during the 50-years period considered by the researchers. But clearly, the authors of the report
were assuming that the criteria they used were appropriate to guarantee
scientific rigor. And they don’t just talk of a lack of proof
that organic produce is
nutritionally superior, but of a lack of good evidence
for that claim. If such evidence is
indeed lacking, then it is enough to undermine the case for buying organic food
based on the assumption that it is healthier – why should one spend more money
for a mere possibility, absent any conclusive evidence? Besides, the previous
studies that the authors chose to ignore were ones that did not meet their
scientific criteria. The Soil Association might thus be accused (as it has
notably been in
this polemical piece) of using data from questionable sources to back up an indefensible position.

 

Yet the
conclusions of the FSA report do not suffice to undermine the case for
preferring organic products, for a number of reasons:

 

  
First,
an important EU-funded four-year study on this very issue has notably found
higher level of antioxidants – which help the body to combat cancer and
cardiovascular disease – in organic foods. The authors of the FSA report didn’t
take this study into account, but this wasn’t because of a perceived lack of
scientific rigor – which precisely drew criticism from organic food
campaigners. This of course doesn’t mean that the FSA study can be neglected
and that claims about the supposed nutritional superiority of organic food
shouldn’t be treated with caution, but it does suggest that this study cannot
just be regarded as the last word on this issue. A careful assessment of the
respective merits and (in)compatibility of these two pieces of research appears
necessary.

 

  
Secondly,
though the environmental implications of organic farming are a complex issue,
it is nevertheless agreed that many organic products have a lower ecological
impact than similar products grown according to conventional methods. There is
also evidence that organic farming could be
more efficient and better for soil
health
, and
that it might also favor biodiversity.

 

  
Finally,
it is quite uncontroversial that organic farming guarantees the highest standards available today for animal welfare.

 

Most of
these considerations are mentioned in
the Soil Association’s official response
to the FSA review.
It would be disappointing if consumers, because of an incomplete presentation
of the relevant information in some news articles or blog entries, were to
conclude that there is no point in buying organic.

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5 Responses to Should we forget about organic food?

  • Michelle Hutchinson says:

    Not to be too cynical, but isn’t the real problem for the sale of organic food that the FSA has indicated that there is no benefit _to the individual_ of buying organic? Points two and three that you mention seem to be more generally agreed upon and easier to show in favour of organic farming, but it’s just easier to sell things if it’s shown to benefit the buyer personally rather than some unspecified bunch of other creatures. That seems to have led to the health benefits to the consumer being emphasised up to now. It’s difficult to know to what extent that campaign has drowned out the benefits to the environment and animals, and is going to lead to people now thinking there’s no advantage, and to what extent people do know about those benefits, but don’t think them great enough to spend that money on.

  • True, I don’t pretend to know that. Organic campaigners seem confident that most people who buy organic don’t do so merely on the basis of the health argument, and so won’t change their shopping habits. Maybe they are being over-optimistic, maybe not. What I think needs to be highlighted is that some of the media coverage on this issue is rather misleading, wrongly giving the impression that the Soil Association has no good arguments to offer for its position. Some people who can afford to buy organic might stop doing so in the light of the FSA study, but at least we should try and make sure that this doesn’t happen because they were in any way misinformed.

  • Philip says:

    I’m not quite sure that this argument works.

    If I can summarise (and please feel free to correct me if I’ve misread), you are saying that (1) organic food may or may not be better for a person’s health, but (2) it is better for the environment on a number of measures and (3) It is better for animal welfare.

    These seem to me to be arguments for improving animal welfare (I don’t see why we should favour organic over free range in this regard) and for environmental practices to be improved (again, organic seems to be a second-order argument here, to be promoted ‘only if’ it is better for the environment.

    I don’t know whether organics are better for people’s health. However, it seems unlikely that organic can provide the yields to make these health benefits available widely.

  • I understand that birds raised according to organic standards enjoy better living conditions than free range ones, e.g. they are less likely to undergo debeaking and are stocked at lower housing densities.

    I’m not saying that eating organic eggs or chicken is the ideal option from an ethical standpoint; veganism might still be preferable, given that birds in organic farms are still killed prematurely and that the relevant standards regarding living conditions are not always fully met. Yet organic still seems to be the best available option if one decides to purchase meat or eggs.

    There is also evidence that organic farming can benefit the environment, as indicated on the websites given as links. Of course this would only give us an instrumental reason for buying organic. It wouldn’t show that buying organic is somehow intrinsically valuable, but this isn’t something I have tried to argue.

  • organic food says:

    The Food Standards Agency report is plain wrong. It has been shown time and again that the nutritional value of organic foods is higher across the board. Not to mention the benefits to the eco-system surrounding the organic farm. All around a win-win.

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