No scientific evidence showing organic is better
OPINION:THE MODERN food supply is constantly under attack by activists with a fundamental mistrust of science and technology.
We have NGOs on organic food, on anti-GM and on food miles, all of whom exert a significant impact on the media and on the thinking of both consumers and policymakers. Regrettably, the scientific reality is rarely presented to consumers.
Organically grown food is nutritionally identical to conventional food. That was the conclusion of a study funded by the Danish organic movement, and which was published in a leading peer review journal.
The UK Food Standards Agency commissioned a review of all the literature relating to the nutritional quality of organic food. The review concluded: “On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organic and conventionally produced foodstuffs.”
As regards taste, the most comprehensive study carried out was at the University of Kansas, where clever experimental techniques allowed the researchers to vary the fertiliser type whilst growing the crops in identical microclimates. Trained taste panels could not distinguish between the organic and the conventionally grown foods.
Which brings us to pesticides. There should be no synthetic residues on organic food and that is a given. In contrast, conventionally grown foods may contain trace levels of pesticides. The Department of Agriculture conducts surveys of crops and completes analysis of the samples for residues of pesticides, and our unit in UCD conducts exposure analysis.
We find that the top 2.5 per cent of consumers of any crop will have pesticide intakes at levels between 0.1 per cent and 10 per cent of the safe exposure dose established by the World Health Organisation. Thus there is zero public health risk from pesticide use.
And before any organic enthusiast argues that accidents can happen, they can indeed, and they have happened in organic agriculture with acute health consequences such as the outbreak of E.coli infections in France last year associated with organic fenugreek. It is precisely because of the potential dangers to human health from accidents or negligence that we have such strong food regulatory structures.
Organic agriculture is commonly believed to be more environmentally friendly than conventional agriculture. However, a report commissioned by the UK department of the environment, food and rural affairs and completed by the University of Manchester concluded: “There is insufficient evidence available to state that organic agriculture overall would have less environmental impact than conventional agriculture.
“In particular, from the data we have identified organic agriculture poses its own environmental problems in the production of certain foods, either in terms of nutrient release to water or in terms of climate-change burden. There is no clear-cut answer to the question: which ‘trolley’ has the lowest environmental impact: the organic one or the conventional one.”
For example, organic wheat production requires less energy than conventionally farmed wheat but requires more land. On the other hand there is no difference between organically grown or conventionally grown potatoes and both require 40 per cent of the total energy for storage. This then raises the question of “food miles” that is driven by the “eat local” movement. Once again things are not so straightforward.
Two trays of apples sit side by side in a local Dublin supermarket. One comes from north Co Dublin and the other from New Zealand.