Dazzling Knowledge

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Organic food myths, continued

My sister wanted me to post the response to the Independent's article on organic food myths. Here are excerpts, with my rebuttals in bold.

Fact one: Organic farming is good for the environment

Organic farming is not perfect; it was only developed 60 years ago, and we still have much to learn. Agreed, so why don’t you work on it before you use the state to force it on everybody. Over those years, organic research has been starved of funding because most investment went first into developing pesticides and then into GM crops. The fruits of those investments are what is called “The Green Revolution,” which has produced an abundance of safe, healthy food, and represents one of the greatest achievements in human history. Organic farming was started by scientists and farmers who wanted to develop what we would now call a more sustainable way of producing food. Their main concern was with the link between healthy soils, healthy food and human health. However, those pioneers did create a farming system that has clear environmental benefits. Organic farming is better for wildlife on farms. The science is clear cut. Scientific literature reviews have found that, overall, organic farms have 30 per cent more wild species, and 50 per cent higher numbers of those species. Based on scientific research, the Government says that organic farming has clear environmental benefits – better for wildlife, lower pollution from sprays, produces fewer dangerous wastes and less carbon dioxide. The Sustainable Development Commission says that organic certification represents "the gold standard" for sustainable food production. I farmed non-organically for more than 30 years, and switched to organic, mainly to try to bring back wildlife on the farm. We have far more birds, and data on hares before and after switching to organic show numbers doubled from 20 to 40. This year we found 56.

Fact two: Organic farming is more sustainable

First of all, I wish someone would explain what “sustainable” means. Last week's article contained several errors – for example, the statement that organic tomatoes take double the amount of energy to produce is wrong, as were the figures for different types of tomato. The information on the climate change impact of organic food omitted one of the key benefits of organic farming: storing carbon in the soil. When this is included, the climate change impact of organic food goes down by between 12 and 80 per cent. Government-funded studies have shown that across a range of sectors, organic farming uses 26 per cent less energy than non-organic farming to produce the same amount of food, and the Government agrees that organic farming is better for climate change. If this is true, then the cost savings must be immense. Then, by all means, bring your foods to market at a lower cost, and we won’t have to worry about this whole argument.

Fact three: Organic farming doesn't use pesticides

We've never claimed this! Perhaps not, but I assure you that this is a very commonly held misconception. Hence a myth.

Fact four: Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous

I'd say certainly risky, and potentially dangerous. In the EU, one food item in 30 contains levels above European legal limits. Nearly 40 pesticides, which we were promised were safe, have been banned or withdrawn from use over the past decade. People who want to reduce their exposure to potentially harmful pesticides can buy organic food. A US study showed that within one day of switching to an organic diet no traces of pesticides could be found in children's urine. When the children switched back to a non-organic diet, pesticides were found immediately. We live longer, healthier lives than ever. Age-adjusted cancer rates are down. Still, ideologues declare harmless substances “risky,” lobby for them to be banned, then claim that the fact that they were banned is evidence that they were dangerous. This is pure sophistry.

Fact five: Organic farming is healthier

In terms of food safety, the Food Standards Agency says there is no difference between organic and non-organic food. Right, so it’s not healthier.

Fact six: Organic food contains more nutrients

Published research shows that, on average, organic food contains higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium, as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants. Organic milk is naturally higher in Omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, Vitamin A (beta-carotene) and some other antioxidants than non-organic milk. I’ve seen research that supports this, in some cases. Again, if you can provide a better product, then do it. Why do you need to cajole the rest of us into consuming something that you claim is cheaper, cleaner, more nutritious, and safer?


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