Oh dear, here we go again with another verbal tennis match between the organic lobby and the conventional food lobby … will it be wet lettuce leaves at dawn?
The Food Standards Agency have just released a review, which they themselves commissioned, into previously published studies of the nutritional values of organic and conventional foods.
The review was carried out by the Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and can be found here (the conclusion is on page 30 if you want to skip straight to it).
This is not a scientific study into nutritional values of organic and conventional food but a paper excercise reviewing studies already undertaken over the past 50 years (most studies were within the past decade).
The review is 209 pages long in total and I was tempted to give up reading on page 2 when I read “This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices.”
Dr Alan Dangour, who led the study, said: “We found broadly that there was no important difference between organic and conventional produce.”
I have to wonder whether Dr Dangour would be saying the same if the review had included studies into pesticide residue?
Prior to this review the FSA has stated there was “no significant” health benefit from eating organic food, this of course has led to the organic lobby immediately suggesting this review was tailored to support their previous stance.
I really get the feeling that if I spoke to the scientists involved in the review the words “not within our remit” would be used rather a lot.
This review seems to totally miss the point of why most people (certainly those I know or speak to) buy organic foods … it’s not simply about how many nutrients a carrot can suck up, it’s about food purity, taste, animal welfare and the environment.
Logic simply tells me that anything grown as naturally as possible is less likely to have hidden health effects storing up for future generations to write reviews about.
What are the long-term effects of pesticide residues? Now that is a study I would read with interest but of course we would all be either supportive or skeptical of the results depending on who commissioned the study.
Within minutes of it’s release the media had firmly latched onto one side or the other, some hailing it as ground breaking scientific news which will end the debate once and for all and others taking the side of the organic associations, stating the review is flawed and it’s initial criteria in choosing studies to review dismissed some very important scientific studies thus skewing the results.
What I do find interesting is that the FSA chose to pay £120,000 for this year long review during a time when we were expecting the results of a £12 million, 4 year study into organic ‘v’ conventional food funded by the EU , called the Quality Low Input Food project (QLIF).
Last year QLIF published some initial research which found organic milk contained 60 percent more antioxidants and beneficial fatty acids than conventional milk. Findings, not yet published from the study, are believed to show that a number of commonly used organic vegetables contain between 10 and 20 percent higher vitamin levels than their conventional equivalents.
The FSA did not include any of the results from the QLIF study in their review and Professor Carlo Leifert, leading the QLIF study immediately attacked the reviews results saying “With these literature reviews you can influence the outcome by the way that you select the papers that you use for your meta-analysis.”
Farming Organisations are trying not to take sides, as they have to represent organic and conventional farmers, so they are tactfully saying they always said both organic and conventional foods are equally healthy.
I really can’t argue with them, if we can get families to eat fruit and veg instead of crisps, chocolate and pizza it will be a huge leap forward, whether they eat organic or conventional food.
This review will come as quite a blow to the growth of the organic food industry, at least until the next review or study claims the opposite but until then we must still ask can organic food survive the uk recession.
Those that buy organic food generally do so for a variety of reasons (including taste, chemical free, animal welfare, environmental) and I doubt very much if those people will choose to go back to buying conventional food solely based on this review but the review may be enough to stop other shoppers converting to organic.
For me it’s a shrug and back to my spade and wellies, there really is nothing more rewarding or organic than growing your own vegetables.