Unearthing the truth about organic food

The Soil Association says it has 'indicative evidence suggesting' that organic food is slightly more nutritious than non-organic food. And it gets even more wishy-washy than that.

Various Authors

Topics Politics

The Soil Association finally admitted in August 2001 that the ‘perception that organic food “is better for you” appears to have been largely based on intuition rather than conclusive evidence’.

But now the organic-promoting organisation claims that it has ‘indicative evidence suggesting’ that organic foods might have slightly more nutrients than non-organic food. If you thought it couldn’t get any more wishy-washy than ‘indicative evidence suggesting’, think again. To reach this conclusion the Soil Association had to ignore more than two thirds of the research on organic foods published in scientific journals. The association considered 99 reports – and of these, just 29 were deemed ‘valid’ and not ‘flawed’. So on the criteria set by the Soil Association, 70 percent of the papers were tossed aside.

But you’d be hard pressed to pick up this important fact by having a quick look at the report. (In fact, it’s impossible to have a quick look at the report at all – it is 87 pages long, has more than 550 citations, and even its introduction has six references.) The Soil Association claims that its lone researcher, Shane Heaton, examined over 400 ‘published papers’ to reach the conclusion that more research is needed to determine definitively whether organic food is really any different to non-organic food – aside from the well-established fact that organic grains tend to be lower in protein.

This is a carefully selected fraction of the available research. Ten of the ‘valid 29’ were papers presented by organic research organisations at organic farm meetings sponsored by organic groups. Another five were reports of research conducted by organic farm groups. These are not peer-reviewed studies published in reputable scientific journals – they are the home crowd cheering their team.

Some of the other ‘studies’ reviewed by the Soil Association are downright hocus-pocus. So-called ‘holistic’ methods of food-quality analysis look at the crystal patterns formed by copper salts in the juices of fruits and vegetables. Organic activists claim that these tests show how organic foods have better ‘picture forming’ qualities, and therefore more ‘vital quality’. But more than 70 years after the first copper crystallisation tests were conducted, not a single food scientist can say what the crystal formations mean in terms of food quality or nutrition.

The huge number of citations (556) in the report compared to the tiny number of papers actually reviewed (29) is an old schoolboy’s trick – an effort to make the report seem more authoritative. In reality, many of the citations are just duplicates from other sections of the report.

What is most telling is what is left out of the report. A research paper by Dr William Lockeretz of the Tufts University School of Nutrition Science published in 1980 is one of the so-called ‘valid 29’. But Dr Lockeretz had this to say in 1997, at an international organic conference: ‘I wish I could tell you that there is a clear, consistent nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods. Even better, I wish I could tell you that the difference is in favour of organic. Unfortunately, though, from my reading of the scientific literature, I do not believe such a claim can be responsibly made.’ Dr Lockeretz is no organic critic, but a long-time organic proponent and a co-founder of the pro-organic American Journal of Alternative Agriculture.

As for the rest of the Soil Association report, it is just a rehash of the same accusations and pesticide fear-mongering that the organic industry has peddled for decades. The whole organic movement is based on a fear of modern farming technology. The most prominent fear is the supposed health threat from synthetic pesticide residues on food. The report states that the ‘evidence of direct links between pesticides and ill-health is still emerging’. Maybe they should let us know when it emerges from more than just the imaginations of organic activists.

Dozens of health and cancer institutions have concluded that there is no realistic threat to human health from the tiny traces of synthetic pesticides on our food, including the US National Research Council (NRC), the US Food and Drug Administration, the American Cancer Society, and the National Cancer Institute of Canada. The NRC said in 1996 that the natural toxins and carcinogens in our foods (which are present in relatively high amounts compared to the traces of synthetics) may pose a greater theoretical cancer risk than synthetic pesticide residues – but that neither the synthetic nor natural carcinogens are present in high enough amounts to warrant avoiding fruit and vegetable consumption.

On that score, it is curious that the Soil Association report failed to mention that one of its own organic pesticides, pyrethrum, was recently reclassified as a ‘likely human carcinogen’ by the US Environmental Protection Agency. That’s right – the Soil Association sanctions the use of carcinogenic pesticides by its own farmers.

The science is clear – organic food is no healthier, safer or more nutritious than non-organic food. And no amount of organic industry hocus-pocus can make that truth disappear.

Dennis Avery is director of the Centre for Global Food Issues. He is the author of Saving the Planet With Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming, Hudson Institute, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA) and The Coming Collapse of Western Europe’s Farm Policies : Why It Will Happen and How It Will Help Save the World’s Wildlife, Hudson Institute, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (USA)). He was previously senior agricultural analyst in the US Department of State, and served on the staff of President Johnson’s National Commission on Food and Fibre.

Alex Avery is a biologist, and research director for the Centre for Global Food Issues.

Read on:

Organic food: why?

spiked-issue: Food scares

spiked-issue: Modern life

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Topics Politics