The organic movement is believed to have been founded by the Botanist Sir Albert Howard, along with a few others, when he brought back from India methods for ‘natural agriculture’ which he began to implement in the UK. This involved adapting traditional farming methods to develop efficient methods of crop rotation, erosion prevention and use of compost.
So, what are organic foods again…?
In general, organic foods are those produced using farming methods which strive to recycle nutrients and resources to promote ecological balance and do so in a way that conserves biodiversity. The aim being to promote environmental, social and economically sustainable food production. Composite foods (i.e. those made up of multiple ingredients) can be labelled as organic if 95% of the ingredients are organically produced. However, the most commonly purchased organic foods include fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy products, eggs and grains.
The Soil Association describes organic food as being:
- Free from pesticides
- Free from artificial colours and preservatives
- Free from antibiotics
- Free from genetic modification
- Always free range
- Better for wildlife
- Better for the planet
Over the last three decades the organic sector has grown year on year; last year sales increased by 6% to reach a record value of £2.2 billion in the UK. However, this is still only a tiny proportion of all food and drink sales which is estimated at £112 billion. Demand isn’t just increasing in supermarket sales as organic ranges in the catering and restaurant sector increased by 10.2% in 2017. Speculators suggest that the growth in the organic sector is due to increased call for transparency, traceability (horse meat spaghetti bolognese anyone?!) and want for food produced with fewer artificial chemicals and drugs.
Are organic foods any healthier?
Advocates of the organic movement like to cherry pick results from research that support their argument. However, looking at the totality of the evidence there are conflicting results as to whether organic foods are nutritionally better for us. There have recently been several systematic reviews collating results comparing conventionally and organically produced fruit and vegetables, milk and meat.
Taking milk as an example, meta-analyses reveal that:
Conventionally-produced milk is significantly higher in= iodine and selenium (substantially so)
Organically-produced milk is significantly higher in= alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), iron (only just significant) and omega 3, EPA and DHA.
For individual nutrients the number of studies that measure them is very low (e.g. for the above nutrients no more than 12 studies were included in each sub-analysis). There is often little mention of this when citing this research, which the scientific authors quite clearly state as a limitation, so therefore even significant results carry a high level of uncertainty.
In the systematic reviews producing positive results for organic food heterogeneity between studies, and therefore risk of bias, is high. This demonstrates that there is no definitive black and white, better or worse when comparing the two production methods.
Taking the milk example again, iodine deficiency is becoming more of a concern in the UK so claiming organic milk, which is significantly lower in iodine, is generally healthier is too much of a sweeping statement in my opinion. There is also little mention that in this review milk yield was significantly higher when conventional practices were used! In summary we do not have good quality scientific evidence that organic foods are healthier.
Should we all eat more organic foods?
The debate is old and on-going for whether everyone should switch all food purchases to organic.
Organic foods are not necessarily more sustainable if we cannot feed our population on them entirely. Studies comparing yields of conventional and organic farming show that organic practice yields range from being much lower, to slightly lower, to the same as conventional methods. There are also mixed results when assessing which is more energy and carbon efficient as well as more profitable for farmers. The variation in results is likely to be due to differences in climate, soil types and farm management; meaning organic practices may be more appropriate in some areas over others where conventional methods are better suited to conditions.
Another reason many people choose to eat organic is to reduce their exposure to chemicals. However, in the UK at least, research shows that levels in conventionally grown produce are well below both harmful and acceptable for consumption levels.
Personally, I wholeheartedly agree with the core principles of organic foods for higher welfare, protection of resources and biodiversity and believe this should be interwoven into all global agricultural approaches to improve sustainability. However, I also believe that there is a cause for integration of approaches where we can take the most appropriate aspects from each and tailor agriculture to the land rather than unnecessarily reducing yield in environments where organic practice may not thrive.
If you would like to include more organic foods into your diet, try to go for locally and seasonally produced products. Organic foods can be more expensive, however fruit and veg boxes from local farms can often be cheaper than supermarkets (and also have less packaging!) or try and find a local co-operative. And remember that just because it’s labelled as organic doesn’t mean it’s inherently better for you than conventionally produced versions.
“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” – Native American Proverb
For the keen readers and evidence-checkers amongst you:
Barański et al. (2014). Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br J Nutr. 2014 Sep 14; 112(5): 794–811. doi: 10.1017/S0007114514001366.
Dangour et al. (2009). Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 90(3):680-5. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28041.
Lacour et al. (2018). Environmental Impacts of Plant-Based Diets: How Does Organic Food Consumption Contribute to Environmental Sustainability? Front Nutr. 5:8. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2018.00008.
Soil Association. Why Organic? https://www.soilassociation.org/organic-living/whyorganic/
Średnicka-Tober et al. (2016). Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses. Br J Nutr. Mar 28;115(6):1043-60. doi: 10.1017/S0007114516000349.
Średnicka-Tober et al. (2016). Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. Br J Nutr. 115(6):994-1011. doi: 10.1017/S0007114515005073.
The Guardian (2018). Organic food and drink sales rise to record levels in the UK. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/07/organic-food-and-drink-sales-rise-to-record-levels-in-the-uk