The truth about organic food

It’s not healthier or Greener, and it's incapable of feeding the world. So why is it back in fashion?

Rob Lyons

Topics Books

It’s not like David Miliband to say something sensible. New Labour’s greener-than-thou environment secretary and warm favourite to be next leader-but-one is usually in the front rank of eco-worriers when discussing climate change or recycling, recently suggesting that people are right to fear global warming and that he was afraid, too. So imagine the annoyance of organic food supporters this week at Miliband’s comments about whether organic food is healthier: ‘It’s a lifestyle choice that people can make. There isn’t any conclusive evidence either way. It’s only four per cent of total farm produce, not 40 per cent and I don’t want to say that 96 per cent of our farm produce is inferior because it’s not organic.’ (1)

Cue outrage. ‘It is not just a lifestyle choice,’ insisted Soil Association spokesman Robin Maynard, ‘In terms of the environment, organic is better. Mr Miliband’s own government has recognised in the past that organic food can be better for that. In fact, organic farmers get an extra payment due to this. (2)’

Miliband’s remarks were surprising because the superiority of organic food has been taken for granted in recent years. It is assumed that organic food is more ‘natural’ and therefore by definition healthier and better for the environment – an assumption backed up by government subsidies for inefficient organic farmers. But is it true?

A new book just published in the US, The Truth About Organic Foods provides a thorough examination of the evidence. The author, Alex Avery, shares Miliband’s conclusion that organic food is no healthier than ‘conventional’ food produced by industrial methods – and also argues that the claim of organic food to be better for the environment is suspect. As Avery, a trained plant physiologist and biologist now working for the Hudson Institute told me, nobody has been putting the other side of the story on organic: ‘The “organic utopian” myth has become a serious roadblock to agricultural progress and I knew that some of the organic food industry’s main claims were simply smoke and mirrors and religious dogma.’

Healthy scepticism

Champions of organic food claim that pesticides and other chemicals used in conventional farming have the potential to cause ill-health, either through immediately poisoning us or through causing cancer in the long term. Take this statement from the Soil Association:

‘Chemicals designed to kill: Along with chemical weapons, chemicals used in farming are the only substances that are deliberately released into the environment designed to kill living things. They pose unique hazards to human health and the environment.’

Elsewhere on the Soil Association’s website we read:

‘Around 31,000 tonnes of chemicals are used in farming in the UK each year to kill weeds, insects and other pests that attack crops. There is surprisingly little control over how these chemicals are used in the non-organic sector and in what quantities or combinations. What we do know is that 150 of the available 350 pesticides commonly used have been identified as potentially [my emphasis] causing cancer and many of us would have been exposed to these pesticides before we were born. (4)’

However, most of our food does not contain residues of these chemicals. Of the minority of food products that still contain traces of pesticide, Avery provides some perspective: ‘[T]he pesticide residue data are a testament to our technical prowess in detecting incredibly tiny traces of specific chemicals in foods. Note that the synthetic pesticide residues… are consumed in microgram quantities, or one-millionth of a gram.’ Given that we tend to buy fruit and veg by the kilo, he notes: ‘Remember, this is equivalent to one penny in $10 million, or one inch in 16,000 miles!’

A host of different chemicals can cause cancer in rodents when researchers feed them to the animals in very large quantities. But the minute quantities involved in pesticide residues mean the same chemicals are harmless in food. There is no evidence of anybody ever dying or falling seriously ill from eating food carrying traces of man-made pesticides.

The over-reaction to the dangers from manmade pesticides is in sharp contrast to the complete ignorance shown towards naturally-occurring poisons. Everyday foods are full of natural pesticides. That’s hardly a surprise, since we tend to choose as crops things that seem resistant to pests and disease. The world-famous biochemist Bruce Ames makes the point clear elsewhere on spiked: ‘The natural chemicals that are known rodent carcinogens in a single cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year’s worth of ingested synthetic pesticide residues that are rodent carcinogens.’ (5) He is not arguing that coffee is dangerous – far from it. Rather, he’s pointing out that the tiny risk from manmade chemicals is actually smaller than other small risks we accept as a normal part of life.

As it happens, as Avery points out, organic produce is not entirely free from chemicals – it is simply that a much narrower range of such chemicals is allowed for food to qualify as ‘organic’, and they tend to be used less frequently. Given that some of the things that pesticides are designed to eliminate – like poisonous fungal growths – are pretty dangerous, that is not necessarily beneficial in any event.

Another assertion often made about organic food is that it is more nutritious. It is not clear, in principle, why this might be. However, some studies suggest it might be the case. Avery looks at these studies in detail and finds many of them deeply flawed. The best review of the evidence, a paper by Woese et al in 1997, concludes that it is very difficult to conclude anything at all. ‘Conventional’ foods contain more pesticide residues and more nitrates – hardly surprising given their greater use in conventional agriculture. But overall, the authors note: ‘With regard to all other desirable nutritional values, it was either the case that no major differences were observed in physico-chemical analyses between the products from different production forms, or contradictory findings did not permit any clear statements. (6)’

In fact, not only do better quality studies in peer-reviewed journals show no consistent difference between the two types of food, Avery notes that even some organic advocates admit it. As William Lockeretz of Tufts University told an organic food conference in 1997: ‘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. (7)’

Even if there were nutritional differences between organic and conventional food, any benefit one way or the other is likely to be much smaller than variation based on the variety of a crop used, other growing conditions, freshness, cooking method – even which foods are consumed together.

Environmental concerns

The environmental case for organic mainly rests upon the pollution caused by producing agricultural chemicals and cleaning up after them. It is certainly true that producing fertilisers in particular uses energy and this inevitably means fossil fuels. But the production of chemicals is only one part of the energy used in putting food on our plates. As a recent article in the Economist notes, many of the assumptions made about what is the most ‘green’ way to supply food are simply wrong. It suggests that big supermarkets, with highly efficient logistics, are arguably ‘greener’ than trying to feed the nation through local farmers’ markets.

Citing research from the UK Department of Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the article says: ‘[A] shift towards a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles. (8)’

To maintain the same overall level of food production using organic methods today would require far more land to be used for farming. In developed countries such as the UK, where the efficiency of industrial farming methods has left many small farms redundant, there might be space to indulge a small land-hungry organic sector. But if we truly pursued the idea of an organic-only economy, the effect on land usage would be dramatic. At a time when environmentalists complain about how wildernesses are being cleared to produce food, the need to clear more land is organic farming’s dirty little secret.

The other alternative is to grow less food. There is no way, using organic methods, that the world’s current population could be sustained on the 37 per cent of land currently used in agriculture. The solution for some, it would appear, is not more food but fewer people. In the words of one organic farmer quoted by Avery, ‘I want to argue that production is not the problem. The problem is the imbalance of humans relative to the millions of other species with whom we co-evolved. (9)’

Don’t mess with nature

The precise arguments of the Soil Association and other organic food groups are actually neither here nor there because no-one is really holding them to account – hence the shocked reaction to Miliband’s statement. The underlying temper of our times is that anything processed or industrialised can be seen as adulterated and harmful, while anything that appears to be natural or close to nature can be regarded as pure and uncorrupted. The precise facts about residues, nutrition or environmental impact are rarely discussed.

The ‘don’t mess with nature’ approach is illustrated by the organic movement’s attitude to genetic modification. Rather than embracing GM as opening up the possibility of greater control over the properties of plants, it is rejected as dangerous interference in nature with all sorts of unknown potential problems. GM crops have the potential to allow greater productivity, reduced use of pesticides and increased nutrition. The organic movement prefers to smear GM crops as the work of malevolent agribusiness trying to create monopolies.

Even if it is found that a particular GM crop did not live up to expectations or caused unexpected problems, that would not be a cause to dismiss the whole technology out of hand. Any process involving experimentation and new techniques will have problems along the way. The most logical approach would be to learn from our mistakes in order to continue improvements. If the entire world was well-fed and food was as cheap as it could be, the discussion might be academic. But when a large proportion of the world’s population is still undernourished, society must constantly explore ways to grow more, better, food.

The roots of organic

The rise of organic food has little to do with a cold assessment of its merits. As Avery notes, the scientific arguments in favour of organic are feeble. Instead, the organic movement began largely as a rejection of industrial society and materialism – one that continues today. As an editorial in the Independent noted, criticising Miliband, ‘The organic movement is flourishing because it is in tune with the zeitgeist, which favours the small and the local and hankers for alternatives to industrial-scale farming and what is an over-cosy relationship between big producers and supermarkets.’ (10) It is this suspicion of modern production methods (despite all the benefits they have brought), mixed with overblown health fears and tied closely to environmentalism, that has allowed organic ideas to become popular.

While the organic movement is often thought of as beginning with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the reaction to an agriculture based on man-made chemicals has existed almost as long as the fertilisers complained of. In his book The Origins of the Organic Movement Philip Conford makes the case for the 1920s, and 1926 in particular, as the moment the organic movement really began. During that year, the Chandos Group of predominantly Anglican thinkers first met in London in the wake of the failed General Strike. Conford argues that this group, who published the New English Weekly, were a driving force in popularising organic ideas, some 20 years before the formation of the Soil Association (11).

A number of other writers emerged in the 1920s promoting broadly similar ideas. Perhaps the most well-known, more for the schools he created than his ideas on agriculture, was Rudolf Steiner. His notion of ‘biodynamic’ farming sounds downright wacky today, and Avery takes great pleasure in quoting Steiner at length:

‘Have you ever thought why cows have horns, or why certain animals have antlers?… The cow has horns in order to send into itself the astral-ethereal formative powers, which, pressing inward, are meant to penetrate right into the digestive organism… Thus in the horn you have something well adapted by its inherent nature to ray back the living and astral properties into the inner life.’

So, horns and antlers are like nature’s satellite dish for cosmic forces. These forces are concentrated in the digestive system, according to Steiner, which explains the importance of manure: ‘What is farm-yard-manure?… [I]t has been inside the organism and has thus been permeated with an astral and ethereal content. In the dung, therefore, we have before us something ethereal and astral. For this reason it has a life-giving and also astralising influence upon the soil.’

If you want to improve the fertility of soil, therefore, you just need to get more ‘living forces’ into it by the simple method of filling a horn with manure and burying it in a field: ‘You see, by burying the horn with its filling of manure, we preserve in the horn the forces it was accustomed to exert within the cow itself… all the radiations that tend to etherealize and astralise are poured into the inner hollow of the horn.’

While Steiner was a first class space cadet, Avery notes that he has a surprising number of followers even today in the ‘biodynamic’ movement. After all, his ideas are hardly any more scientifically implausible than those of homeopathy where distilled water, somehow imprinted with the ‘memory’ of some active ingredient long since diluted out of it, can apparently cure all sorts of ailments.

However, while Steiner certainly had followers, his presentation was too esoteric for most. A more influential figure in the long term was Sir Albert Howard. He worked as an agricultural adviser in India in the 1920s but quickly concluded that he could learn more from the Indians than he could teach. He was impressed by the strapping good health of many of the tribes, particularly the Hunza, and concluded their rude fitness must be the product of their food and, by extension, their agriculture.

Central to the ideas that Howard was to promote in later years was the importance of compost. In fact, the Rule of Return – the idea that vital material from the soil must be returned through compost and manure – is a key idea of the organic movement. Howard advised and supervised the introduction of his Indore system of composting in many places both in the UK and America. His comments on the ruining of soil by modern methods could have been made by any modern environmentalist:

‘In allowing science to be used to wring the last ounce from the soil by new varieties of crops, cheaper and more stimulating manures, deeper and more thorough cultivating machines, hens which lay themselves to death, and cows which perish in an ocean of milk, something more than a want of judgment on the part of the organisation is involved. Agricultural research has been misused to make the farmer, not a better producer of food, but a more expert bandit… All goes well as long as the soil can be made to yield a crop. But soil fertility does not last forever; eventually the land is worn out; real farming dies.’

Howard’s predictions must have seemed prescient when American agriculture was doing its best to self-destruct during the years of the Dust Bowl, when a combination of inappropriate farming techniques, drought and depression created the conditions for strong winds to strip vast areas of topsoil. It is also the case that most farmers use manure and compost as means of improving soil quality. But Howard was ultimately wrong. Better understanding of the use of manmade fertilisers, selective breeding, and other techniques have greatly improved crop yields over the last few decades.

What is striking about the early organic pioneers is their rejection of modern society. In a world staggering out of one World War and towards another via economic and social turmoil, there were plenty of people who rejected capitalism. However, most in the organic movement rejected the communist and socialist alternatives, too, and recoiled from the class conflict embodied in the General Strike of 1926.

The social makeup of those prominent in the early organic movement suggests a group of people being squeezed out of modern society: disillusioned colonials from a declining and increasingly discredited empire, aristocrats seeking to preserve rural life as agricultural workers were replaced by machines, and churchmen trying to find a new setting for religious ideas.

Back to the future

So why are organic ideas that were based on disillusionment with modernity back in fashion today? Economically and politically, Western societies have stagnated over the last 30 years or so. The idea that tomorrow will look radically different from – and better than – today seems unrealistic to many. Both the traditional left and right are exhausted, their visions of the future bankrupt. Against this background those who hanker after an imaginary idyllic past, or are fearful of future change, can often exercise disproportionate influence over politics and culture. Alongside the aristocrats like Prince Charles we now have the disillusioned stockbrokers who give up the rat race to sell organic jam, the New Age religionists, and the middle-class hypochondriacs.

Books like Avery’s are important to underline the factual errors of those who campaign for organic food. However, the discussion of food also illustrates a broader need to remind ourselves just how much modern society has achieved in changing the lives of people for the better through the application of science, industry and reason. Perhaps then we will all be better able to see the ideas of the organic movement for the manure that they are.

The Truth About Organic Foods by Alex Avery is published by Henderson Communications and can be ordered via the website, spiked has a limited number of copies at the special price of £15 inc p&p (Europe only). Contact Rob Lyons to order a copy.

(1) Organic farmers hit back at Miliband’s food verdict, Independent, 8 January 2007

(2) Organic farmers hit back at Miliband’s food verdict, Independent, 8 January 2007

(3) What’s your poison?, Soil Association

(4) Pesticides in your food, Soil Association

(5) Risk, cancer and manmade chemicals, by Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold

(6) Woese K., D. Lange, C. Boess & K. Werner Böel (1997). ‘A comparison of organically and conventionally grown foods: results of a review of the relevant literature’. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 74: 281-293

(7) Quoted by Avery, The Truth About Organic Foods, p 32

(8) Voting with your trolley, Economist, 9 December 2006

(9) Fred Kirschenmann, quoted in Avery, p212

(10) A matter of choice, Independent, 8 January 2007

(11) The Origins of the Organic Movement Philip Conford, Floris Books, 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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