Organic food found to be better for us – and why this finding is unlikely to lead to an official endorsement of organic food

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When I’m lecturing, one of the most common questions that comes up is whether organic food is better than food produced non-organically. There is actually some evidence that organic food tends to offer more in the way of what the body needs (e.g. nutrients). And of course, it offers less of what the body most certainly doesn’t need (e.g. pesticide residues). It is these two factors which underlie my belief that, generally speaking, organic produce is better for us than non-organically produced fare.

This week, the results of a large UK-based study looking into the difference between organic and non-organic food were announced. This four-year �£12 million piece of research involved the growing of fruit and veg and the rearing of cattle on organic and non-organic sites across Europe. The results of the study have not been published in a journal, so all we’ve got to go on is selected findings that have been fed to the press.

Among these titbits, there appears to be real evidence that organic food is indeed more nutritious than conventionally farmed food. For example, it is being reported that the researcher found levels of ‘antioxidant’ nutrients 50-80 per cent higher in milk from organic animals compared to normal milk. Also, organic varieties of wheat, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, onions and lettuce were found to contain 20-40 per cent more nutrients than their non-organic counterparts. Taken at face value, these results look like they provide good evidence that organic food is healthier for us.

I have noticed that in the reporting of this research, mention is often made of the UK’s Food Standards Agency traditionally dismissive stance on organic food. Apparently, the FSA is set to review this latest evidence, though I am not particularly hopeful that it will lead to anything looking like an endorsement of organic food.

My belief is based on the simple fact that there are considerable conflicts of interest that exist within the FSA. In previous blogs I have, for instance, drawn attention to the fact that the FSA is advised on policy by a committee called the Advisory Committee on Research, and that many members of this committee benefit financially directly from the food industry. One member of the ACR is a full time employee of Unilever (!).

The last time I wrote about the FSA was on 10th September when I was highlighting this organisations rather toothless reaction to research linking food additives with hyperactivity in children. I notice that this issue was also highlighted in an article in the Guardian (a UK broadsheet) on 19th September by food writer Felicity Lawrence.

In her piece, Ms Lawrence draws our attention to the fact that on the additive issue, the FSA sought advice from a body known as the Committee on the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food (CoT). She goes on to point out that: The committee on the toxicity of chemicals in food (CoT) is chaired by Professor Ieuan Hughes, a distinguished paediatrician who declares among his interests research funds from drug companies and Novo Nordisk, the leading maker of industrial enzymes for the food industry. Other members include Dr Philip Carthew, whose salary is paid by Unilever; Professor Ian Rowland, consultant to Unilever and recipient of research funds from other food manufacturers; Dr Lesley Stanley, who declares contracts with Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, and research collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline and Novo Nordisk.�

Ms Lawrence adds: And so it goes on. Half the scientists on the committee have links to agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry. None of this is to impugn their individual integrity, for that’s the way science is these days: in the absence of public funding, researchers must bring in the money where they can. So it is industry that often frames the questions science asks, and there is a danger that industry influences the mindset with which results are approached.�

I’ve got a feeling in my water that even the full findings of the recent research on organic food and farming are blisteringly positive, the FSA will be lukewarm at best about the results. On the plus side, I also suspect that less and less people give a toss about what the FSA says anyway as more and more is revealed about its close relationship with industry.

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