FOOD AND THE ENVIRONMENT – These are the two issues that almost everyone cares deeply about. We have placed so much emotional investment into these two issues (and rightly so) that sometimes subjectivity can blind us from seeing the true scientific evidence. Here I want to put the focus on organic produce: Is it safe? Is healthier for us? Is it sustainable? In order to dissect these questions, let’s take a look at the science behind them.
To begin with, we need to define organic production. It is a system of farm management incorporating ideal environmental methods, animal welfare, and natural processes and substances. Despite being more expensive than conventional produce, the organic industry is growing and within the UK it has a market worth of £2 billion.
Health and Nutrition
This is actually a tricky subject because a lot of studies have conflicting results. To take a few examples, one study conducted a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. The team found organic crops had a significantly higher amount of anti-oxidants, which they then said are associated with a lower risk of chronic and neurodegenerative diseases as well as cancers.
A more recent paper (Galgano et al 2016) which gives a detailed review provides a whole list of publications that have actually produced conflicting results with particular reference to carotenoids, phenolic content, iron, zinc and vitamin C. What was interesting to note is that the nutritional content of plant foods are actually more affected by other factors such as type of crop, harvest time and year, and environmental issues than by whether they are organic or not. Regarding animal produce, the authors state here that differences between organic and conventional produce are actually more due to the breeds of animals used instead. One thing they do say conclusively is that going organic with animal produce does have a clear benefit because of the different composition of polyunsaturated fatty acids which can prevent various diseases.
But what of the pesticide risk? Well it actually appears as though there is some unequivocal evidence here but before I get there, first thing’s first- organic produce isn’t entirely free of pesticides, and not adding pesticides and fungicides to crops actually runs the risk of micro-organisms contaminating the food (Galgano et al 2016).
So apart from the British Journal of Nutrition study I mentioned above (which by the way is funded by an organic charity- yes I know, but bear with me here), I came across publications that all said consuming organic produce significantly decreases the amount of (organophosphorus) pesticides that a person is exposed to (Lu et al. 2006; Curl et al. 2015; Oates et al. 2014; Smith-Spangler et al. 2012). For starters, this decrease in pesticide exposure is quite significant within children (Smith-Spangler et al 2012; Lu et al 2006), but the evidence to suggest that it causes harm is actually lacking. It is merely an assumption to say that children who eat organic produce will have a lower probability of developing neurological health risks. It is also emphasised in one paper that going organic might not even matter at least in wealthy countries because pesticide contamination is well below the daily intake threshold (Seufert and Ramankutty, 2017) and within legal limits (New Scientist, 2012).
Having said that very recently, a report was presented to the UN arguing that not only is there scientific research to support that pesticides are harmful to the environment and to human health, but it also busts this myth that we need pesticides to feed a growing population.
Good for the environment?
The answer here is yes and no. Yes, because it promotes higher diversity, improves soil and water quality, and enhances profitability (Seufert and Ramankutty, 2017). In terms of measuring per unit of field area, organic farms have a higher soil organic matter content and lower nutrient losses. No, because it has higher pollutant emissions (ammonia, nitrous oxide and nitrogen leaching) per unit product (Tuomisto et al. 2012). In truth, it is a bit of a mix and because of this both studies actually recommend both organic and conventional farming systems because they offset each other.
Overall, this is not really a black and white picture. The higher nutritional value of organic produce is debatable on the whole and yes, if you are consuming conventional produce you will have a higher exposure to pesticides, which could lead to health problems. In terms of the environment, there are distinct pros and cons. It would be somewhat misleading to come down heavily on one side over the other on environmental issues, but this is exactly what happened between the New Scientist and the Soil Association. What started out as a reply to the New Scientist became a blog piece. For a more balanced and “grey” picture, read this.
To quote one author of Tuomisto et al. 2012, Hanna Tuomito in a Sense about Science question session says: “The optimal farming system would most likely be something between the current organic and conventional farming.” For the individual however the case for going organic (given the evidence) is ultimately your personal choice.