Update Aug 10th: Thanks to Robbie for sending me the link to Dominic Lawson’s piece on the FSA report and responses from the organic movement in the Times.
Lawson quotes research suggesting farmers may have lower cancer rates possibly because pesticide use may protect against cancer! Now that has just got to be corporate spin…
The findings in last weeks’ FSA report that there is little to choose between organic and “conventional” food in terms of the major nutrients is hardly a surprise.
For many including myself, less rigidly defined labels such as “local” and “chemical-free” have been more important especially if we can see for ourseleves how the food is grown.
What is more surprising perhaps is some of the responses from some parties in the organic movement, which are not helping us understand the issues raised, or move the discussion onto other aspects of sustainable food and farming.
Rob Hopkins wrote to me to ask:
Might it be possible that this is actually an example of bad science, which just might have set out to prove a point, been subject to some kind of political interference and the might of the multinational food industry? Clearly it is very useful for some quite unpleasant institutions if we all believe organic farming is a waste of time. Might one argue that to believe that such a study is completely impartial and rigorous is somewhat naive? Might this report be an example of where we need to take what is presented as ‘good science’ with a rather large pinch of ‘organic’ salt?
In order to assess whether or not the review meets the highest standards of science, it is necessary to understand something about how science works, and this is an issue which goes right to the heart of what is wrong with environmentalism, because the movement in general is poorly informed about science, despite being dependent on it for assessing the general health of the environment.
As explained on Bad Science, the review followed the internationally accepted protocols established by the Cochrane collaboration, which does not accept corporate funding. These include deciding criteria for including studies before actually doing the review. The studies that were excluded were because they were either not relevant to this review, or of poor quality.
sadly, like many industries in a corner, the Soil Association seek to undermine the public’s understanding of what a “systematic review” is (which itself causes collateral damage to everybody’s ability to engage in debates on evidence).
(It came as a surprise to me, naive as I am, to discover that the SA advocates the use of homeopathy in treatment of some animal diseases, which might lead one to question whether it has any interest in evidence at all.)
The charge of vested interests seems rather paranoid, but unfortunately is all too common amongst the alternative community which often holds the view that science and technology in general is just a conspiracy to poison us for profit. We forget just how hard it is to eek a living from Mother Nature, and our separation from the means of our sustenance has the price to pay of igorance of what is actually involved in feeding ourselves.
We all have agendas, even jobbing permaculture teachers like me, so the important thing is to be upfront about them.
It seems worth noting then that Craig Sams, the vice-chair of the SA, and founder of Green and Black’s chocolate, retained a post for with Cadbury’s after the posh chocolate brand was sold to the multi-national in 2005. This kind of association between the SA and large corporations which sell sweets and use the organic/fairtrade labels to expand the market does rather seem to undermine the arguments being made about the supposed nutritional benefits of organic food. It seems reasonable to ask the question: is the Organic label nothing more than a marketing strategy?
It’s not all Black and Green: Anecdotal evidence suggests that 9 out of 10 under-12s and many adults as well find organic chocolate more yummy than non-organic carrots
Many people have said, as does the SA, that higher nutritional content is not the main reason why they might buy organic. This is certainly true; however, the SA has certainly used the perceived nutritional benefits of organic food as a major reason to favour it, as in this piece:
There is a growing body of research that shows organic food can be more nutritious for you and your family. Put simply, organic food contains more of the good stuff we need – like vitamins and minerals – and less of the bad stuff that we don’t – pesticides, additives and drugs.
The first sentence here is false as the FSA review demonstrates- although one of the conclusions of the report is that the number of good quality studies is small, and research in the area generally poor, the fact is there is no good evidence of higher nutritional content in organic food, so we should not claim that there is. We might guess that there might be, and there seems plenty of anecdotal evidence that the quality and taste may be better, but for the major nutrients that keep us generally nourished and healthy, there is no difference.
Of course, it may be that further research will show up this evidence, but the fact that it is not evident to date indicates it is unlikely to be a major difference. The SA should lobby the Big Organic growers to fund more research if it is not satisfied.
There are several other good reasons why we might nonetheless prefer organic food:
-avoidance of pesticide and fertiliser chemical residue;
-supporting sustainable farming;
-supporting small local growers;
-supporting animal welfare;
-better farming practices including better care of the soil;
- protection of biodiversity and wildlife habitat on farms;
-less dependency on fossil fuels.
-building self-reliance and local community resilience
Avoidance of pesticide and fertiliser chemical residue
The first question here is, how much residue of chemicals is actually found on non-organic food and how bad is it for us? Seems like a reasonable concern and I admit that this would have been a major reason that I have favoured organic since a teenager.
But is it really true?
Firstly, a serious criticism of organic standards is that they are inconsistent and still permit the use of fairly noxious substances such as copper sulphate, used in the control of potato blight.
On the other hand, given that most of our food is grown using pesticides etc, there doesnt seem to be any real evidence that our health is suffering as a result of consequent environmental contamination: we still have one of the longest life-expectancies in history of the race, and although there is an increase of such modern diseases, many of these may be a result of old age and of the kind of food we eat, not pesticide poisoning.
A key issue here is that as mammals we need high-energy foods like carbohydrates to keep going- in an oil-rich world, this basic need is easily satisfied, and obesity can set in if we have endless cheap supplies especially in the form of corn-syrup (fructose). That is why the emphases on “eating your greens” becomes so important for the affluent ape.
This issue goes back to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and the rapid destruction of the environment that was apparent in the post-war rapid expansion of industrial agriculture, but deeper than that it touches on one of the most prevalent post-modern myths that “nature is better”.
In a world dominated by our one over-successful species, the concept of “natural” may not mean very much. Practically every last square inch of the planet- and certainly nearly all of the industrial and over-crowded Europe- has been modified by humans.
More than that, we have been modifying our food since we started cooking it. Farming started some 10,000 years ago and began the process of breeding plants and animals to be more amenable to meeting our needs. The “natural” world is full of complex chemicals many of which are toxins designed to keep predators at bay. The reason our tender young salad seedlings are so vulnerable to slugs is that they have not yet developed the resistance to pests their wild cousins have.
The question then is, are artificial chemicals more nasty than natural ones? The answer is certainly not, in general- but of course each one needs to be looked at case-by-case. In the development of chemicals, many trials are conducted to ensure they are only administered at doses well below what would be fatal- in many cases this may be far below the fatal dose of, say, a glass of lager.
That is not to say that we should not be vigilant with the introduction of new chemicals, and there may be justifiable concern about long-term effects, but this issues goes to the heart of what is wrong with post-modernism. The whole of human history has been a struggle for survival and whatever the negative effects of the modern world, few of us would survive long in the natural environment without the benefits of modern science, and fewer would voluntarily choose to dispense with the comforts of modern life completely.
We need to acknowledge that naturally occurring chemicals can be just as dangerous as synthetic ones, but the latter have the advantage of being tested, and have the potential to be applied as and when we need them, in carefully controlled quantities, which cannot be achieved for their naturally occurring counterparts.
In Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability , David Holmgren also suggests that use of appropriate herbicides to aid tree establishment may be acceptable, but for many any kind of spray remains simply taboo.
Biodiversity and care of the soil
One of the great contributions of the organic movement has been an emphases on better care of wildlife habitats, and care of the soil. However, while organic farms in general may be better than conventional in this sense, this is also not a clear cut issue.
Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma discusses how many organic farms may have to harrow and cultivate more often for weed control, which can be more harmful to the soil than spraying, as well as using more fossil energy for this at least. He also saw evidence of the use of low-paid migrant labour on big organic farms to make up for the extra work involved.
The article concludes that in the UK, at least, when problems with agriculture emerge they usually hinge around poor management not mode of agriculture. In environmental terms no-till farming currently seems to be better than others.
So in terms of soil health, no-till practices- as prioritized in permaculture for example- may be more influential than not spraying; while organic farmers may in general be more aware of issues of soil health and environmental protection, improvements in farming on some conventional farms show that good practice is possible there as well. It depends on the farm, not the mode of agriculture.
This is a key ethical issue and one that has certainly motivated by buying habits; but is it an issue for specifically organic production? Again, the target should be large-scale factory farms, the worst excesses of profit-driven industrial farming, rather than converntianl farming per se. Personally, I am far more concerned about avoiding intensive factory farming than buying organic.
Fossil fuels dependency
Organic farming may be less fossil-fuel dependent, but on the other hand, yields may be lower and therefore more land may be required. Some crops may require more fossil fuels; clearly, the increased use of refridgeration and the habit in some cases of flying in fresh organic produce would not help reduce fossil-fuel dependency. There is a lot of studies referred to on Wikipaediabut again there are many other factors apart from the specific industry standards of “organic” that effect fossil fuel inputs.
Food plant diversity
The greatest threat to our food security, and the greatest tragedy of modern farming, is the loss of food crop diversity.
The vast range of food crops, adapted and bred for specific characteristics for specific locations and conditions, was a hallmark of traditional food resilience; but industrial methods have lead to an inexorable decline as the priority has been towards a “one size fits all” type for mechanical harvesting and ever-bigger fileds of monocrops.
For the smallholder or home gardener, seed saving to protect diversity and home plant breeding for varieties more suitable to the home gardener, has become increasingly important.
The organic movement is to be applauded for raising these issues and encouraging the protection of seed diversity. The work of Vandana Shiva highlights the loss of biodiversity in food plants and the corproate complicity in this process.
Most scientific research goes into breeding varieties geared for maximum yields, ability to intake nitrogen and and withstand pesticide use; and allow for mechanical harvesting, global transport and storage.
As much as anything, the perceived superior quality and tast of organic produce may be down to variety.
However, if the resources of science could be harnessed to produce varieties of greater diversity for the home gardener or small producer, this is an area where a real difference could be made. It is of course quite correct for the organic movement to lament the increasing influence of big business on the uses of science in this area, with the miuses of GM technology for profit and control of seed the most obvious example.
Self-reliance and building community resilience
These may be the most important contributions that the organic movement have made. It is obviously important for people to know how to grow food without the addition of chemicals they have no chance of producing themseleves on a small scale; on the other hand, organic farming may be reliant on many other inputs from plastic tunnels to mulch.
Home gardening is a fascinating and fulfilling activity which can contribute to local food security, and it is essential to retain and develop the skills needed for people to grow at least some of their own food.
Peak oil-ists have long been advocates of growing food,and far more people will need to be working on the land in an energy descent future- but this is not something most are yet willing to accept and would involve considerable change in lifestyle. Goldacre for example says that most food “will always be industrial”. It would be interesting for him to consider more seriously the peak oil issue and whther this will indeed always be possible into the future.
The “Organic” label is primarily a marketing device to sell an expensive product with “added value”; in times of recession fewer will be willing to pay for it.
There is an obvious difference between an organic lettuce flown in fresh from israel and a regular lettuce from a sprayed field down the road where you know the farmer.
It should be said though that where “organic” does mean “local, small farmer using natural methods and trying to limit fossil input” many of us will be willing to pay more as a “sustainability subsidy” and to support local growers. Food has become unrealistically cheap during the last 50 years when we learned to increase yields with fossil energy, and there is every indication that we will have to pay more in the future, and that a lot more of us will have to be involved in actually doing the work to produce it. Food has been a declining proportion of our weekly grocery budget and this has lead to it becoming undervalued and treated as just another commodity; consumers have come to resent the farmer asking for a decent wage and demand cheap food. I don’t resent the extra cost becasue much of what I buy comes from the ocal grower; but I wouldnt favour “Big Organic” over “Big Conventional” otherwise.
There is lots of reasons however to feel that some organic produce, especially meat and salads, taste better and are produced more ethically, and are of superior quality.
In addition, the organic movement should be applauded for raising the issues of the environmental impact and pesticide use, and perhaps playing an important role in reigning in big AgriBusiness from the worst excesses of profit-fuelled conventional farming practices.
As environmentalists, we should reject the simplistic notion that “natural is better” and we should demand that groups like the Soil Association and other prominant environmental lobby groups such as Transition Towns stop trying to confuse us about the workings of science, and should make their own agendas more transparent. The anti-science stance of many prominent environmentalists is a shameful disgrace to the movement, discrediting it in the eyes of those who actually understand just how science works and how profoundly we depend on science to survive.
In an age of climate change, which will effect food and farming more profoundly than anything, our understanding of science is paramount, and it is a tragic irony that sectors of the environmental movement itself are undermining this understanding at a time when we need it most.
The question still remains as to whether organics or small-scale farming can really feed a population of 6.7 billion and still retain at least some of the benefits and creature comforts the modern world has brought us; all too often the “green” lobby conveniently forgets how tough life can be on the farm, and red in tooth and claw “nature” really is.
For these reasons alone we should salute the farmer, any farmer, who is able to at least temporarily cheat the natural competitve forces of nature and put food on our plates.