Organic farming, food quality and, human health

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Organic farming, food quality and, human health

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Organic farming, food quality and, human health,
A review of the evidence


Soil Association, UK

Record numbers of people are now eating organic,
and many of them are doing so because they feel
intuitively that they are making a more natural and
healthy choice. This report assesses the evidence behind
that intuition.

Sir Albert Howard, whose research in the 1930s did much
to inform the development of organic farming and inspired
the foundation of the Soil Association, believed the health
of the soil, plants, animals and people was ‘one and
indivisible’. But how much evidence is there to validate
the hypothesis that farming methods have an important
effect on the nutritional quality of the food we eat?

This report examines over 400 published papers
considering or comparing organic and non-organic foods
in relation to key areas of food quality important to the
promotion of good health – food safety, nutritional content
and the observed health effects in those consuming food.
It points out that organic standards specifically prohibit the
use of certain additives and manufacturing processes linked
to health concerns such as osteoporosis and heart disease,
and argues that there are no grounds for complacency
about the long-term effects of pesticides and additives
on our health. It asserts that there is indicative evidence
suggesting nutritional differences between organic and nonorganic
food. More research is needed, it emphasises, but
if the indications of the available evidence are confirmed
there could be major implications for public health.
These conclusions are sure to be controversial. They
contradict Sir John Krebs of the Food Standards Agency,
who said in August 2000 that “there is not enough
information available at present to be able to say that
organic foods are significantly different in terms of their
safety and nutritional content to those produced by
conventional farming”. Sir John’s comments rather echo
those of the critics of the mid-1980s who said there was
no evidence to justify the Soil Association’s decision to
ban animal protein from feed for organic livestock.
Within a few years Britain’s non-organic herds were
being ruined by BSE, and the scientific evidence
linking the disease with feed was all too abundant.

It is almost as if consumers have become laboratory animals
in the huge experiment that is industrialised agriculture,
storing up untold health problems for the future. Chemicals
such as DDT and lindane have been banned after the initial
dismissal of safety concerns. Research in animal feeding
trials has indicated that health effects often only reveal
themselves over long time spans, sometimes even over
successive generations. So the evidence presented in this
report showing nutritional differences between organic
and non-organic foods should not be lightly dismissed.
Nor should the food safety issues raised. The organic
movement has repeatedly advocated the precautionary
principle, questioning practices that violate the natural
cycle and represent a potential threat to health.

It would be easy to criticise this report, as some surely
will, on the grounds that the Soil Association is a partisan
organisation. However in the midst of a distinctly illinformed
debate, we have taken responsibility for
bringing together the existing evidence and subjecting
it to closer scrutiny than ever before. A number of scientists,
organisations and experts in the fields of medicine, nutrition
and organic research have endorsed our findings and
recommendations and I urge you to read the report for
yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health complements
the strong environmental arguments for going organic
presented in our previous report, The Biodiversity Benefits
of Organic Farming. It is a compelling and challenging
contribution to an important debate, which I hope will
help all food producers to deliver healthier food, and
enable consumers and governments to make informed
choices in this time of crisis for our agriculture.

Patrick Holden