Organic food is scientifically proven to be better for us, better for wildlife and better for the planet in general. Here’s a closer at look at why.
Compared to conventionally grown produce, organic crops have:
- Higher nutritional value
- Fewer pesticides
- No manufactured herbicides
- No artificial fertilisers
- No GM
- No artificial colours or preservatives
On a personal level we try to eat a diet that’s high in a wide spectrum of nutrients, as well as sulphur-rich foods to help reduce toxins. There seems little point spending time and money trying to absorb this goodness, only to eat food that’s contaminated with herbicides and pesticides. Certain chemicals may be considered within ‘safe’ levels in foods that are widely available, but are the levels acceptable to us personally?
Organic food is generally harder to grow at home, and is relatively difficult or expensive to obtain, so we need facts to justify this choice. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “There are no facts, only interpretations”. Having done a lot of background reading on this subject, we have to agree – there are many grey areas here. So let’s break it down.
Whether or not organically produced food is more nutritious has long been the subject of debate, but a ground-breaking study by Newcastle University in 2014 gives the most compelling evidence to date.
A group of international experts revealed that organic crops are up to 60% higher in several key antioxidants, leading to a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers.
“Analysing 343 studies into the compositional differences between organic and conventional crops, the team found that a switch to eating organic fruit, vegetable and cereals – and food made from them – would provide additional antioxidants equivalent to eating between 1-2 extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day.”
– Newcastle University
So this seems to make economic sense.
Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) all occur naturally, and are essential to healthy crops. But trying to force a plant to absorb more of them artificially can cause trouble. Synthetic nitrogen-based and phosphate-based fertilisers can:
- Kill good microorganisms in the soil
- Produce plants that are deficient in vitamins, minerals, and protein
- Seep into groundwater, polluting domestic supplies and affecting natural ecosystems
- Convert to toxic nitrites in our bodies when consumed
Let’s refer back to the Newcastle University study…
- “The study… shows significantly lower levels of toxic heavy metals in organic crops. Cadmium, which is one of only three metal contaminants along with lead and mercury for which the European Commission has set maximum permitted contamination levels in food, was found to be almost 50% lower in organic crops than conventionally-grown ones.”
- “Nitrogen concentrations were found to be significantly lower in organic crops. Concentrations of total nitrogen were 10%, nitrate 30% and nitrite 87% lower in organic compared to conventional crops. The study also found that pesticide residues were four times more likely to be found in conventional crops than organic ones.”
A 1998 study by Van Assche showed 41.3% of human cadmium exposure comes from phosphate fertilisers. Over-exposure to cadmium is linked to a softening of bones and can affect the central nervous system.
Nitrogen is like sugar to a plant – it gives quick energy, making it grow faster. But a plant that’s not allowed to mature naturally is likely to give lower levels of nutrients in the harvested crops. When too much nitrate converts to nitrite in our systems, it can also cause health problems such as thyroid dysfunction.
We’ve noticed organic food has so much more flavour than conventional produce, and this is apparently to do with its higher levels of antioxidants. So not only are antioxidants good for the health, they also keep the food as tasty as nature intended. Flavour is hugely important to us – we know it’s so much easier to stick to a healthy diet if the food is also delicious 🙂
Let’s look at the thorny issue of glyphosate: a weedkiller commonly known as Monsanto’s Roundup. This has been on the market since 1974 and is widely used by farmers and gardeners. Monsanto also developed glyphosate-resistant crops, enabling farmers to kill weeds without killing their crops.
There has been a great deal of discussion in the EU as to whether or not to renew the approval of this product in member states. A comprehensive scientific assessment was carried out and the European Food Safety Authority published its conclusion: “Glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans”. However, Member States have had trouble agreeing on approving the substance for 10 years and have currently voted to limit this to 5 years.
In contradiction, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have, after detailed research, concluded: “There is limited evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of glyphosate. A positive association has been observed for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. There is sufficient evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of glyphosate. Glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Dr Robin Mesnage of Kings College London is quoted as saying: “We know Roundup contains many other chemicals, which when mixed together are 1000 times more toxic than glyphosate on its own.”
Tests by the Defra Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food found that almost two thirds of wholemeal bread sampled contained glyphosate.
And so it goes on.
Then we have the argument over neonicotinoids, a pest killer thought to have a negative effect on the bee population.
“In 2013, there was enough evidence to totally ban neonicotinoids. Their toxicity is not compatible with sustainable food production. Our bees, and insect populations in general, need special attention as their decline is dramatic. Evidence shows that despite scaremongering information spread by the pesticide industry, the 2013 restrictions did not lead to any reduction in crop yields. There is thus no point in maintaining their use and the environmental collapse they generate.”
– Martin Dermine, PAN Europe’s pollinator expert.
According to The British Beekeeper’s Association: “If these pollinating insects went into serious decline, the health of our £100bn food industry, which is at the heart our economy, would be damaged. Without the service nature provides, some of that food would become a lot harder to grow and more expensive.”
How can we trust the ‘organic’ label? In the UK we’re fortunate The Soil Association does a lot of the work for us in terms of reliability. Food producers have to jump through a lot of hoops to display their stamp.
We noticed a lot of dried goods – notably nuts, grains and legumes – are shipped in from China, and we’d read some pretty alarming articles about corruption in China. Even with the organic stamp, we were not sure if a product was actually what it promised to be. It would be pretty galling to pay more for something we assume is more nutritious, when it might be no different to what we’d get in an average supermarket. Here are a couple of examples:
There are many similar articles to be found, and not only about China. At first we tried to avoid buying foods from China, but since we believe variety is crucial to a healthy diet, we didn’t want to limit our options too much. When we hit a brick wall trying to source peanuts, something had to be done – peanut butter is a serious business in our household. Our trusted supplier Abel & Cole stock organic peanuts from China, supplied by Suma, so we dropped them both a line. This is part of Suma’s reply:
“The Soil Association, our overseeing body, does the main part of the tracing for us. However, we also conduct random testing for heavy metals and pesticides etc on our incoming commodities (random products, random timings), and due to the adverse publicity involved we tend to concentrate on products from China. We’ve never found anything untoward.”
Ultimately, we have to choose whom to trust. We can’t be entirely self-sufficient and need more than a few home-grown veggies to survive. So we decided that’s where to draw our line – anything from either of these suppliers is deemed the best we can get. We’ll gladly quiz other suppliers in future if the need arises, and will keep you posted here.
So with conventional farming you may end up with produce that grows more quickly and is more aesthetically pleasing than your slightly misshapen organic fare. But it’s probably significantly lower in key nutrients and higher in toxins. It also has an impact on the environment.
Got any comments or questions of your own about organic food? Leave us a comment below, we’d love to hear from you.
Want to see a different take on all this?
Take a look at A.W. Dänzer’s amazing book The Invisible Power within Foods »