Organic Versus Conventional Food: UK Report Flawed

A report issued Wedneday [PDF] by Dr. Alan Dangour of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK, claims that there is no substantial difference in nutritional content between organic and conventional food. The report was based on the review of fifty years worth of research papers on the subject. But reading it makes one wonder if influence caused a misreading of the findings, and in addition, if the agency has addressed the wrong questions entirely.

Even with very few studies comparing organic to conventional out there, evidence has proven that certain nutrients, such as Vitamin C and antioxidants, are on average higher in organic food. For example, a US study released in 2008 by The Organic Center focused on the nutrient quality of plant-based organic versus conventional foods, using matched pairs, "crops grown on nearby farms, on the same type of soil, with the same irrigation systems and harvest timing, and grown from the same plant variety." According to their report,

"Across all the valid matched pairs and the 11 nutrients included in [The Organic Center] study, nutrient levels in organic food averaged 25% higher than in conventional food. Given that some of the most significant differences favoring organic foods were for key antioxidant nutrients that most Americans do not get enough of on most days, the team concluded that the consumption of organic fruits and vegetables, in particular, offered significant health benefits, roughly equivalent to an additional serving of a moderately nutrient dense fruit or vegetable on an average day."

The Soil Association in the UK also pointed out yesterday that the FSA left out a more rigorous report commissioned by the European Union that found a range of "nutritionally desirable compounds" like antioxidants, vitamins, and glycosinolates were present in greater amounts in organic crops, while the amount of "nutritionally undesirable compounds" like mycotoxins, glycoalkaloids, cadmium and nickel were present in lower amounts by comparison in organic crops.

For research purposes the FSA report took into account studies beginning in 1958, from before we knew about the role certain nutrients played in our diet. In addition, studies show that nutrient content of our food overall has been going down over time. According to Michael Hansen of Consumer's Union, "including older studies, with crop varieties that no longer are on the market, and which did have more nutrients, only serves to lessen the possibility of finding any significant differences between organic and conventional foods."

The FSA study also ignored the 15 relevant studies that have come out since their February 2008 cut off date that could have changed the outcome of the report. In addition, the FSA analysis actually found that organic food contains more phosphorus, a beneficial nutrient, while conventional food on average contains more nitrogen, which scientists have linked to cancer. (Read more here) Why wasn't this information considered before issuing a substantial equivalence?

Aside from nutrients, contaminants are not considered in the FSA report. It has been proven that antibiotics are being taken up by plants via manure application on fields. The study did not address this or the unhealthy side effects of continued intake of pesticide residues, which accumulate in our bodies. There are a lack of studies on this subject, and investigators' claimed that these questions were "beyond the scope" of this report, but that also might be due to a certain interest in keeping the scope small and thus the outcomes skewed.

The FSA is a branch of the government of the United Kingdom, but states on it's website that it "works at 'arm's length' from Government because it doesn't report to a specific minister and is free to publish any advice it issues." With no oversight, influence over the selected research could have been a factor in the outcomes. A look at the profiles of the head of FSA reveals former employees of agribusinesses like Arla Foods (now part of Europe's largest dairy), Sarah Lee Corporation, and UK grocery giant Sainsbury's. Therefore it is not hard to assume that the perspective leans towards what is best for agribusiness interests.

The FSA report was commissioned to determine whether or not the nearly 4 billion dollar organic industry in Great Britain could claim higher health benefits when selling its products. By rendering the playing field equal for conventional farmers, the government and the agricultural sector wouldn't have to begin the difficult work of shifting the unwieldy agricultural system towards sustainability.

One of the biggest hurtles to reforming our food system in the United States is our unwillingness to acknowledge at the governmental level the superiority of sustainable agriculture. Leaving aside the nutrient question, organic agriculture helps improve the soil, protects farm workers from exposure to toxic chemicals, places an emphasis on animal welfare, and keeps toxic runoff out of our waterways. In so doing, sustainable agriculture improves not just our personal health, but our collective environmental health.

The nutrient content in our food is going down because our soil is being degraded. Sustainable agriculture, by contrast, improves the food we eat by improving our environment. Instead of focusing on puny reports that tell us next to nothing and yet dominate the media with simple binaries, we should be taking an integrative approach to analyzing data and therefore face the hard truths before us. Sustainable agriculture improves the food we eat by improving our environment. As Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, two of our countries most respected voices on our soil wrote in a New York Times op-ed back in January, which continues to be as scary as it is relevant: "Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland."

So we have a decision to make. If we chose business as usual, it will be at our own peril.

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