Organic September: asking the difficult questions

September 23, 2019 6:18 am Published by Leave your thoughts

We’re getting towards the end of this year’s Organic September. Feeling a little in the mood to flex our argumentative muscles, the team at Naturally Good Food has been looking at some of the more contentious issues surrounding organic food over the course of this month. We’ve asked: why is organic food more expensive? Does it have to be? Is it really just for the rich? We’ve come up with five very bad reasons to eat organic food (and some good reasons on the other side, of course). Today, we thought we’d ask some of the most difficult questions of all associated with organic produce – and try to answer them.

Organic: we're asking the difficult questions

Here goes:

  • Organic farming: is it sustainable for the planet?
  • Is organic food actually any better for you?
  • Does organic food taste better?

We’re going to try to answer these questions below. We’re not scientists or (for the most part) farmers ourselves. We don’t have access to raw data – but we’re prepared to trawl through everything that’s publicly available to come up with some numbers, some opinions and some facts. Our bias is obvious from the start: we’re in favour of eating organic and buying organic and we’ve heard lots of arguments to convince us we’re right. But we don’t like to shy away from a good counter-argument – and that’s why we want to explore some of these more difficult questions.

Is organic farming sustainable?

Sometimes, organic farming is presented as the most sustainable option there is. Organic farming doesn’t use synthetic pesticides, and so soil quality is maintained and improved. There’s no harmful run-off of pesticides into waterways, keeping one of our most precious resources – water – clean for the future. We’re not pumping antibiotics into organic animals or depleting the earth’s mineral supply by dousing organic fields in petroleum-based products. We’re keeping tiny vital organisms alive in the soil, water and hedgerows, allowing delicate and crucial ecosystems to flourish. In short, we’re using the soil as it was intended: to grow food naturally. For many people, that’s the only kind of ‘sustainability’ that will make any difference in the world.

For other people, organic farming appears completely unsustainable. They note that organic farming produces lower yields (because it doesn’t use such strong pesticides and avoids intensive practices). You therefore need much more land to grow the same amount of crops – or much more time to produce more slowly, carefully reared animals. With a rapidly growing population, some people argue, if we all tried to eat only organic, many of us would starve.

We’ve got three things to say about all of this.

Firstly, the organic detractors have got a point. Most of us don’t eat entirely organic: we can’t track it down, we can’t afford it, and it’s not readily available or convenient when we’re out and about. Most of us eat conventionally produced food most of the time.

But there’s a general move now towards doing things more naturally – towards thinking about climate change and our human impact; towards eating clean; towards buying clean; and towards farming clean. These aren’t steps backwards, but are moves driven by young people, highly tech-savvy and ready to invent and harness new technologies to make things work better and more efficiently – as well as more naturally. Right now, we might not eat entirely organic, but we want to keep the pressure up to find ways to make things, one day, both entirely sustainable and organic. To do otherwise – to throw in the towel and accept the widespread degradation of soil, water and ecosystems – we feel would be to condemn the planet.

Organic farming isn’t yet sustainable for the whole world, but it’s sustainable in parts of it, at a local level. One day, we hope, technology and human inventiveness will find a way to make it sustainable globally.

Is organic food better for you?

Yes, says Garden Organic (one of our occasional partners!). On their webpage here they link to studies on crops, meat, milk and dairy products, showing clear differences in nutrients between organic and non-organic food. Organic products have more antioxidants, they claim, along with fewer toxic heavy metal traces, more omega-3 fatty acids and better mineral content.

This research is, unfortunately, contradicted by various heavyweight stuff on the other side of the debate. The big name here is the 2009 Dangour report from the US Food Standards Agency, which after much research, concluded that there were no significant differences in nutrition between organic and conventional crops and livestock products.

Subsequent studies (not all of them funded by the non-organic opposition) tended to support Dangour. Here’s a list of evidence from the now-defunct

‘A 2012 systematic review concluded that the 17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminate levels “lacked strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” Similarly, this 2009 systematic review found “no evidence” in a difference between nutrient content of organically and conventionally grown food.  Furthermore, a 2011 meta analysis, the most comprehensive of its kind, found “no strong evidence” that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventionally grown food.’

A BBC experiment on pesticides in organic food came up with the following results:

‘…we found that…non-organic food did contain ‘trace amounts’ of pesticides. Based on the extraction methods, the pesticide concentrations in the original sample would have been greater than the following values:

  • Carbamates – 50 parts per billion
  • Organophosphates – 40 parts per billion
  • Thiophosphates – 50 parts per billion’

That doesn’t sound great – and the organic food in the experiments didn’t contain such traces. But, the BBC goes on to say, ‘’these are considered to be levels which are safe for human consumption’.

With forceful arguments on both sides of the scale, at this point it tends to come down to what you personally believe. At Naturally Good Food we believe that food grown naturally, in strong soils, without the use of heavy-duty pesticides, will bring us the best possible nutritional content. At the same time, we don’t demonise non-organic crops. Better to eat a lot of conventional carrots, we say, than a small amount of organic carrots – but better still to eat a lot of carrots, some of which are organic.

At least, until research categorically proves otherwise…

Does organic food taste better?

Experiments on the taste of organic food almost always seem to involve giving people both a conventional and an organic carrot and asking them which they prefer. Taste being a subjective thing, it’s pretty hard to find a proper scientific test for it.

Many experiments muddy the waters further by comparing a fresh, beautifully cooked and seasoned organic dish with a stale, poor-quality conventional counterpart (or vice versa). It’s often not a fair comparison: most growers and producers of organic food take it very seriously, and make sure that whatever they present to customers is at its freshest and has been produced with care and skill. This kind of food is always going to taste good, whether organic or not.

But…we defy you to taste one of our organic almonds, subtle and creamy, and then try a conventional almond and not notice the difference. Or one of our rich, dark, organic apricots – so deliciously deep in flavour that you feel guilty eating them – and then a simply sweet conventional apricot, and not feel convinced that organic wins. Recently, we put two pecans to the test (read all about it in our Tale of Two Pecans) and only one of them was properly toffee-ish, coffee-ish, beautifully sweet and wonderfully complex in flavour.

You can probably guess which it was.

The final answers

Yes. No. Maybe. There are no clear-cut answers to the difficult questions! Go with your own good sense, your own values and your own gut. At Naturally Good Food we value organic for its environmental impact, its likely nutritional content and its taste. And we’re prepared to fight for it!

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This post was written by Yzanne

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