Friday, 31 July 2009

Organic debate (en)rages....

There has been a great deal of coverage in the media this week regarding the FSA’s recently published ‘Organic nutrient content review’. The Review concludes that there is no significant nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence to suggest eating organic food has any additional health benefits.

As someone who has always favoured organic food (if not always able to buy it due to budget constraints) I was quite interested to read the subsequent articles and comments which have followed the release of these findings. Interestingly, the study doesn’t take into account the effects of fertiliser and pesticide traces in food. This to me, kind of makes the whole report a bit of a cop-out really. Personally, I try to buy organic for environmental reasons rather than nutritional ones (after all, if I was so concerned about nutrition, I wouldn’t consume vast amounts of Wotsits on a shamefully regular basis). However, surely any study on how nutritious organic food is in comparison to ‘regular’ food should take into account chemicals found on and hormones found in conventionally produced food? Although my motivation is environmental, I do still like the idea that I am not ingesting potentially harmful chemicals when chomping on an organic apple….for example.

This is also, to keep things in perspective, one study among many others which have different conclusions. It is very difficult for us (and by us I mean those not in a position to test the nutritional content of our food which I feel fairly safe to assume is quite a large group) to know which study to believe and how accurate the information that filters down to us really is. One thing which really interests me is the level of hostility which some seem to feel towards those who buy organic food calling them ‘smug’ ‘rich’ ‘stupid’ and my favourite ‘middle class trendies in the west with more money than sense’. I wish I had more money than sense! Why such anger and contempt? The Soil Association suggests a number of benefits to ‘going organic’. Nutritional arguments aside, these include that organic farmers use natural methods to feed soil and limit pests rather than harmful chemicals such as nitrogen fertiliser which contributes towards greenhouse gas emissions. Organic food avoids pesticides and I don’t know about you but I would like to consume as little of those as possible. Animal welfare is also an important part of organic farming. Organic animal rearing standards prohibit cruelty and guarantee free-range conditions. And, according to the Soil Association’s website, “The UK Government’s own advisors found that plant, insect and bird life is up to 50% greater on organic farms”. Now to me all these things sounds like something I’d like to encourage as much as I can.

If I had the money, I would only buy organic produce. I don’t do it to be smug or to assuage my conscience. It’s because all of the above sounds good to me. So I don’t really understand the anger. I think discourse on the issue is important and the more information available the better. I personally would like to know whether the higher price charged for organic goods is actually justified or if part of it is cynical retailers knowing they can make money from us smug, middle class trendies… perhaps we can move forward this debate with a little less name-calling and a little more thought regarding what kind of farming practices we’d like to support and the best way to go about this….

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