Azara Blog: Programme on Radio 4 looks at so-called organic food

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Date published: 2007/04/26

The The Investigation, BBC Radio 4, says:

Sales of organic produce are booming on the back of alleged benefits to our health and the environment, as well as claims of higher standards of animal welfare. But are we being seduced by "feel good" claims that don't stand up to scientific scrutiny?
The Soil Association, Britain's largest certifying body for organic produce, claims there "is a growing body of research that shows organic food can be more nutritious for you". And there have been some recent studies to back this up, showing higher levels of vitamins in organic kiwi fruits and tomatoes.

This intrigued Clare Williamson from the British Nutrition Foundation who decided to study all the current research on the comparative health benefits of organic and non-organic food.

The organic lobby's claims failed to convince her. The BNF "feel it would be irresponsible to promote organic food over non organic food as being better for you as there is not enough strong evidence," Ms Williamson says of her findings.

The government and its independent watchdog, the Food Standards Agency are equally adamant there is no proof organic food is better for our health. But science alone cannot prove the point, says Lord Peter Melchett, a director of the Soil Association, who believes consumers must trust their instincts.

"Science doesn't tell us the answers so some of it we have to go on feelings," he says.

One fact that can't be disputed is that organic farming uses far fewer pesticides than conventional agriculture. The Soil Association's booklet Organic Food and Farming: Myth and Reality, is clear what this means: "pesticides have a harmful impact on human health".

So organic must be better for your health as it rarely uses pesticides... Currently the amount of pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables isn't high enough to harm us, says the Food Standards Agency.

And Professor Anthony Trewevas, an expert in plant and molecular biology, believes the argument against pesticides is disingenuous and simplistic since we are already eating huge numbers of natural toxic pesticides which plants use to kill off insects.

"All of us on average consume several thousand a day," says to Professor Trewevas, who estimates this amounts to a quarter of a teaspoon a day. These natural pesticides don't adversely affect us, he says.

"You do not come out in tumours; you do not become sick from nerve toxins."
Laurence Woodward, director of the nearby Elm Farm Organic Research centre, believes Sheepdrove is a perfect advert for the environmental benefits of organic farming.

"There is no question that organic farming is better for the environment than conventional farming, there is mounting evidence from government studies," he says.

But, as with the health claims, can we prove organic really is better for the planet?

That's exactly what the government and organisations like the Soil Association have been trying to find out. Earlier this year, Ken Green, professor of environmental management at Manchester University Business School, was commissioned by the government to conduct the first comprehensive study of the environmental impact of food production.

His findings weren't good news for the organic industry. "The studies that exist show there is not a clear cut thing that says let's go organic and that will have a big environmental impact compared to traditional methods of farming," says Mr Green, summarising his findings.

The organic lobby rounded on the study accusing it of bad science because it was only a "literature review" rather one based on original research. But Lord Melchett, readily concedes there are "still some big gaps in our knowledge about this". He is confident future research will prove organic is better for the environment.

But few studies have actually tried to analyse the environmental benefits of organic farming. Mr Woodward believes there's a good reason for this: "It's almost impossible to do a sensible comparison of organic and conventional farming systems. The systems are so different".

Yet this hasn't stopped bodies like the Soil Association from claiming that "Organic farming is friendlier to the environment".

All food is "organic" in the true, chemical, sense of the word (since it contains carbon). The so-called environmentalists have hijacked the word to take it to mean farming techniques that they happen to like, mainly because they are 19th century or older. The Soil Association is unaccountable and should be investigated by the government not only for truth in advertising but also for being a near-monopoly in the UK for deciding what is and is not allegedly organic.

Of course it would be rather astounding if so-called organic food, by whatever arbitrary definition anyone cares to use, were not better somehow or other. After all, it is a lot more expensive to produce. When you pay twice as much for a Bosch washing machine as for an ordinary brand you expect it to be a lot better, in particular to last a lot longer. But just like a Bosch washing machine is meant for the middle class, so is so-called organic food. It is a way for the middle class to implicitly claim that they are morally superior to the working class (which of course they are not, they are just richer).

Well, perhaps so-called organic food is more expensive mainly because it happens to cover environmental costs that are normally externalised by the farming community. It would be useful for someone to look at this in detail. But is there anybody who can be trusted to do this? Most experts (certainly the Soil Association and other so-called environmentalists) are extremely biased.

It is rather astonishing for Radio 4 to produce a programme like this. Radio 4 is the BBC radio station produced by and for the middle class, and it is usually totally biased towards so-called organic food (and against supermarkets, where the peasants shop). You just have to listen to the sanctimonious presenters on the Food Programme (the worst programme on Radio 4) for five minutes to be given shovel fulls of this bias.

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