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£12million EU Organic Food research missed by FSA

July 30, 2009

“Organic no healthier than ordinary food”

“Organic food: the shock truth”

Great headlines. But they have more to do with a government dealing with the effects of recession together with a powerful supermarket and industrial farming lobby than actual facts. This story originates from an FSA commissioned survey of fifty years of research into the nutritional benefits of food. It is not new research – but merely a summary of what we already know. By applying a set of criteria which excluded all but 55 studies it does not really represent the state of current knowledge about the subject and is therefore rather a waste of taxpayers money.

Importantly the FSA created an artificial cut-off date of February 2008, thereby neatly avoiding having to include the most thorough and up-to-date new research into nutritional and organic food carried out across the EU (see below). Fortunately The Independent bothered to seek out the facts and presented this information but TV news viewers, readers of the Daily Mail and many other papers will come away with a misleading report.

FSA bias against organic
The FSA (a UK government body which advises the public on food) has a history of playing down any research which provides evidence of the benefits of organic and in 2004 in its own review admitted that “the vast majority” of people consulted felt the Agency had “deviated from its normal stance of making statements based solely on scientific evidence” when “speaking against organic food and for GM food.” The truth is that the FSA has to balance its advice with economic and business considerations and cannot be seen to be criticizing non-organic agriculture which provides the majority of the country’s food and which provides the cheapest food.

In 2000 FSA director, Sir John Krebs, said:

“[the public are] not getting value for money in my opinion and in the opinion of the FSA if they think they’re buying food with extra nutritional quality or extra safety.”

Three years later he had changed his mind:

“organic food contains fewer residues of the pesticides used in conventional agriculture, so buying organic is one way to reduce the chances that your food contains these pesticide residues.”

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So is organic healthier?

Pesticides

“long-term exposure to pesticides can lead to serious disturbances to the immune system, sexual disorders, cancers, sterility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system and genetic damage.” European Commission, 2006

The main health argument for organic is the absence of the many artificial additives used in intensive agriculture: antibiotics, growth hormones, GMOs and agrichemicals, including fertilizer, fungicides, herbicides and insecticides.  Scientists admit that we have no way of knowing yet (they’ve only been used extensively in the last 30 years) what the effects of a cocktail of low-level but sustained doses of toxic chemicals will be on human health.

Recent UK government data showed that 44% of non-organic fruit and vegetables samples contained pesticides.  A trawl through the government quarterly records of pesticide residues by supermarket and brand reveals persistent low (and sometimes high) levels of pesticide residues in our food.

Pesticide use is increasing without the ordinary consumer realizing it: over half of all pesticides ever produced have been applied since 1984. In the UK alone, 31,000 tonnes of pesticides are applied to UK farmland each year.

Read The Rough Guide to Food to find out more about babies and children regarding pesticides.

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Nutrition
After years of conflicting advice (and minimal investment on the part of the UK government into organic food research) the findings of a recent £12-million, 4-year EU project across 31 countries found in favour of organic.

The EU research findings:

  • Organic fruit and vegetables contain more nutrients and 40% more antioxidants – substances which scientists believe can cut the risk of cancer and heart disease, Britain’s biggest killers.
  • Organic foods have higher levels of iron and zinc, vital nutrients lacking in many people’s diets.
  • Organic milk contains up to 80% more antioxidants; higher levels of vitamins A and E.
  • Organic wheat, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, onions and lettuce had between 20 and 40% more nutrients.

Milk is the organic food most thoroughly researched by scientists. A major research project carried out by Liverpool University and Glasgow University (2006) provided evidence that for a few extra pence on the price of organic you get:

  • 68% more total omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic milk.
  • One-third reduction in the incidence of eczema.
  • Higher levels of vitamin E and beta-carotene.
  • 60% more conjugated linoleic acid (a fatty acid which lowers risk of heart problems and cancer).

Meat The FSA has acknowledged (but not actually promoted the fact) that beef produced from organic animals fed a predominantly forage-based diets rather than grain, has lower levels of unhealthy saturated fatty acid concentrations and higher levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. And who can forget watching a cooked factory chicken having the vast amounts of fat squeezed out of it on TV.

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Cost: avoid overpriced supermarket organic and buy direct

It does cost farmers more to produce food naturally – without growth promoters and pesticides and with high animal welfare. But unlike industrially-produced food where manufacturers  effectively overcharge for cheap processed food concoctions of fat, salt, fillers, sugar (and additives to conceal the lack of real ingredients) – organic producers tend to undercharge in order to make their products affordable. We’re only just waking up to the links between industrially-produced food and the obesity epidemic in the US/UK but it will be a while before the FSA gives us any real information on this – for obvious reasons.

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Get a veg box: save time and money
Award-winning Riverford Farm works with organic farmers regionally to sell direct to over 40,000 customers across the UK and makes great efforts to keep costs down and the quality always very high. Good Housekeeping’s always stringent research showed recently that vegetable box delivery schemes won hands down when compared to supermarkets on convenience, value for money and quality (all prices were compared over a 6-week period). Setting up a box delivery from scratch is as easy as ordering from Amazon. It’s much quicker to order than supermarket online and there’s no delivery charge.

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RG Food cover
Read the Organic Food chapter in The Rough Guide to Food for more on this.

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