Organic food is better for us - and its farming methods can help feed the world


OPINION:Conventional farming is starting to take practices from the organic book – that’s hardly anti-science, writes OLIVER MOORE

MANY COMMENTATORS, including Prof Mike Gibney (“No scientific evidence showing organic is better,” Irish Times, July 5th) are concerned about the effects of what they see as the anti-science organic brigade. This notion is a well-worn cliche, but it is also something of a straw man.

Organic farmers employ science every day, from crop rotations (more complex than in the past) to pest management and understanding soil structure.

Conventional farming is starting to take practices from the organic handbook – for example, planting clover to fix nitrogen. This is an alternative to a 550-degree fertility furnace, fired up by a diminishing, damaging supply of fossil fuels, to create nitrogen fertilizer, too much of which is still lost into rivers and lakes.

Science tells us the nitrogen cycle is one of the key planetary boundaries to have been crossed. Organic gives farming a solution. That’s hardly anti-science.

Prof Gibney refers to the UK’s 2009 Food Standards Agency report on organic food and nutrition, which has been influential. Largely under- reported were three similar peer-reviewed publications, one in 2009 and two in 2011, which also overviewed the published research on organic food and nutrition.

The 2009 French study, unlike the UK FSA research, considered publications in languages other than English. It found organic fruits and vegetables superior for some minerals (eg iron and magnesium) and some anti-oxidant micronutrients (phenols, resveratrol salicylic acid). In organic animal products it found more favourable amounts of polyunsaturated fats; for some specific organic vegetables, vitamin C levels were higher.

Importantly, this French research also considered dry matter (higher in organic food) and traces of nitrites (far lower in organic food), which again the UK research did not consider.

The 2011 overviews considered plant foods, and found secondary metabolites and micronutrient levels higher in organic food – 12 per cent and 5.7 per cent respectively.

But let’s look at it another way: in a context where studies have shown significant decreases in the nutritional content of numerous foods over decades, it is a positive that organic can at least match conventional nutritionality.

This is because conventional agriculture, as practised now, will not be possible indefinitely. In all relevant environmental measures – biodiversity, soil, landscape, ground and surface water, climate/air and energy – organic trumps conventional.

Yield, however, is tricky. Conventional yields are higher than organic, especially when it comes to grain. As a society, we choose to feed grain to animals to feed people – organic, however, has specific limits on the non-grass component of an animal’s diet. Tens of millions of hectares of fertile land have been lost due to conventional farming practices in recent decades, and it is estimated that 80 per cent of land is less productive because of soil degradation. Greater yield also brings about “externalities” like pollution and climate change: US writer Tom Philpot recently compared our quest for greater yields at the cost of everything else to “gauging the health of a steroid-addled bodybuilder by measuring his biceps”.

Prof Gibney’s statement that “there is zero public health risk from pesticide use”, because residue levels are low in people tested, deserves comment. For one thing, rural dwellers and farm labourers are the public, too. The largest ever study of pesticide drift exposure, published last year, revealed that residents in agriculturally intensive regions in the US have a 69 times higher risk of pesticide poisoning from drift exposure compared with other regions: for farm labourers, the risk is 145 times higher. The World Health Organisation estimated in 1990 that three million people are hospitalised and 220,000 die annually from pesticide poisonings.

Organic is only a tiny part of the solution to making the food system more sustainable and fair: what we produce, where we produce it, and how we distribute it – and many parts of this food system are unbalanced.

Counter-intuitive for some, no doubt, it is the case that organic methods, along with practices like agroforestry, can actually help feed the world.

Organic farming uses locally available resources (eg labour, biological pest controls) rather than expensive and debt-causing agri-industrial inputs (eg pesticides, compound fertilizers), while building soil structure, extreme weather resistance and local food resilience in the poorest parts of the world.

Don’t believe me? Look up what the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the UN’s Environment Programme have been saying about it for years.

Dr Oliver Moore is a writer specialising in organic farming and food

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