A UK study funded by the Food Standards Authority which found there were no significant benefits to be gained from eating organic food has drawn widespread ire, including in cases fierce condemnation, and overall much debate in the British media, as well as in New Zealand.
The report claims that there are no significant benefits to be gained from eating organic.
The UK Soil Association's initial response was that it was a serious piece of research, and the association would examine its conclusion seriously.
Much Research Overlooked
However the research appeared to be a fairly limited piece of analysis, the association said.
For example, the review only looked at research papers written in English, it excluded the results of almost half the papers it found, and it ignored more up-to-date research from the European Union, published in April this year (despite knowing this research was due to be published), the association said in a statement issued to address the potential serious ramifications, to the worldwide organic industry, of the study, which received prominence in the media, including in New Zealand.
"We are disappointed in the conclusions the researchers have reached. The review rejected almost all of the existing studies of comparisons between organic and non-organic nutritional differences. This was because these studies did not meet particular criteria fixed by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which carried out the review," said Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett.
NZ Organic Sector's Response Impressive
Organics Aotearoa NZ took the same stand issuing a statement drawing attention to the deficiencies in the report. OANZ chief executive Dr Jon Tanner said it was impressive that when the New Zealand media went looking for comment, the organic sector was able to make clear and authoritative statements - not just on the weaknesses of the report, but also on why organics is crucial to New Zealand's future development.
"Views provided the length of the country - from academics at the University of Otago, shoppers in Christchurch, organic retailers and Food Show attendees in Auckland, OANZ member groups and the OANZ executive office - were all united in our view, and crystal clear as to why we grow and shop organically.
Consumers Making Up Own Minds
"Ultimately, consumers are making up their own minds about the benefits of buying organic food - and around the world we are continuing to choose organic."
It was interesting to the note the story, which was posted on the Stuff website, attracted almost 100 comments from readers, OANZ reported.
"A significant majority of the comments were from people who strongly endorsed organic food."
Study Found Nutritional Differences - But Said Research Insignificant
UK Soil in Health, in analysing the FSA report said that although the researchers say that the differences between organic and non-organic food are not 'important', due to the relatively few studies, they report in their analysis that there are higher levels of beneficial nutrients in organic compared to non-organic foods.
For example, the mean positive difference between the following nutrients, when comparing organic to non-organic food, was found in the FSA study to be:
- Protein 12.7%
- Beta-carotene 53.6%
- Flavonoids 38.4%
- Copper 8.3%
- Magnesium 7.1%
- Phosphorous 6%
- Potassium 2.5%
- Sodium 8.7%
- Sulphur 10.5%
- Zinc 11.3%
- Phenolic compounds 13.2%
The researchers also found higher levels of beneficial polyunsaturated fatty acids in organic meat and dairy products (between 2.1% - 27.8% higher) compared to non-organic meat and dairy.
Major European-Union Funded Research Ignored
The Soil Association is also disappointed that the FSA failed to include the results of a major European Union-funded study involving 31 research and university institutes and the publication, so far, of more than 100 scientific papers, at a cost of 18million Euros, which ended in April this year.
The European Union research programme concluded that:
*Levels of a range of nutritionally desirable compounds (e.g. antioxidants, vitamins, glycosinolates) were shown to be higher in organic crops'
*Levels of nutritionally undesirable compounds (e.g. mycotoxins, glycoalkaloids, Cadmium and Nickel) were shown to be lower in organic crops'.
In addition, levels of fatty acids, such as CLA and omega 3 were between 10 - 60% higher in organic milk and dairy products, and levels of Vitamin C were up to 90% higher in leafy vegetables and fruits.
Long Range Research Lacking
Mr Melchett said there were limited studies available on the (long term) health benefits of organic versus non-organic food.
"Without large-scale, longitudinal research it is difficult to come to far-reaching clear conclusions on this, which was acknowledged by the authors of the FSA review," Mr Melchett said.
Also, there is not sufficient research on the long-term effects of pesticides on human health.
European Commission Noted Pesticide Health Risk
In 2006 the European Commission said that "long-term exposure to pesticides can lead to serious disturbances to the immune system, sexual disorders, cancers, sterility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system and genetic damage."
Organic farming and food systems are holistic, and are produced to work with nature rather than to rely on oil-based inputs such as fertilisers.
Consumers who purchase organic products are not just buying food which has not been covered in pesticides (the average apple may be sprayed up to 16 times with as many as 30 different pesticides) they are supporting a system that has the highest welfare standards for animals, bans routine use of antibiotics and increases wildlife on farms.
Organics Not Just for Health
The association said it is a popular myth that people who buy organic food only do so because they think it will make them healthier. Recent EU research has found that regular buyers of organic food (who buy about 80% of all organic products) have a much more sophisticated understanding of the range of benefits that organic farming and food deliver.
Buying organic food also promotes a healthy environment. Organic farms have on average 30% more species and 50% more wildlife like birds, butterflies and bees. Compassion in World Farming, the recognised experts, say organic farming has the potential for the highest animal welfare standards. Other environmental benefits are self evident – there’s less dangerous waste on organic farms. Artificial nitrogen fertiliser is banned in organic farming, so there’s less run-off of nutrients that cause algae blooms in coastal waters.
There are more women and younger people involved in organic farming and organic farmers are more optimistic about the future.
"That future will be dominated by climate change. Here organic farming is leading the way, insisting on using solar powered fertility through crops like red clover that fix nitrogen into the soil for subsequent crops. For our own health and the health of the planet, organic food and farming will play a big part in our future."
However the Soil Association also said it welcomed the report and consultation in that it recognised that 'business as usual' was not an option and that we would need to feed ourselves in a more sustainable way.
Report Did Acknowledge Problems to Solve
But, said associaiton policy advisor Helen Browning, the scale and pace of change would need to be massive.
"Technology will of course be important, but the search for a 'silver bullet' like GM, to solve all these problems is a dangerous distraction. The solutions are already largely available; it's now about the political will to implement them."
"Food systems must become less dependent on fossil fuels, more resilient in the face of climate change, and able to contribute to the Government's pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Farming based on organic principles can deliver against all three challenges."
"Scientific evidence proves that low input systems, like organic, can provide sustainable solutions to food security. The recent IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report, which included 400 scientists and has been approved by over 60 countries, backed organic agriculture and similar 'agro-ecological' approaches as part of a 'radical change' in the way the world produces food."
A recent report by Reading University entitled "England and Wales under organic agriculture: how much food could be produced?" showed that organic farming could provide us with a far healthier and much more climate friendly diet, she said.
US Consumers Decry Biased Reporting
The US Organic Consumers Association also reacted to the FSA report saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if there was nothing wrong with our industrial agriculture and chemical food system?"
The OCA is a grassroots non-profit public interest organization, with 850,000 members, subscribers and volunteers
"Wouldn't it be a relief to learn that it doesn't matter whether we buy organic or conventional food, because there isn't really any difference in their nutritional value?"
"In July, the corporate media, responding to a biased article in the British press, slandered the now mass-based organic food and farming movement with headlines including, "Organic Not All That," "Organic Food No Better," "Organic Food Not Nutritionally Better," "Organic Food's Nutrition Questioned by Review," "Organic Food ‘No Healthier’," "Study Says Organic Food Offers Few Advantages," and "Organic Nutrition About the Same as Conventional," said the OCA.
"Unfortunately, as you are probably already aware" said the OCA in a newsletter to its subscribers, "chemical and energy intensive, GMO industrial farming degrades the soil, pollutes the environment, and destabilizes the climate with CO2, methane and nitrous oxide greenhouse gas pollution."
Food produced with agri-toxic chemicals loses its nutritional value, while organic farming replenishes the soil, sequesters climate destructive greenhouse gases, and produces food which is safer and far more nutritious said the OCA.
Forty years of field trials and research have clearly demonstrated the superiority of organics, but US media missed that point when reporting on the "organics are no better" story from the UK media, the association said.
The OCA and the UK Soil Association were not alone in expressing dismay over the findings of the study. Reaction to it has been widespread and at times fiercely critical, with many writers, including a UK food columnist, coming to the defence of organic food.