The ‘Benefits’ of Organic

After ana­lys­ing all avail­able evid­ence from the past 50 years, a study com­mis­sioned by the UK government’s Food Stand­ards Agency has come to the con­clu­sion that organ­ic food is no health­i­er (in terms of nutri­tion­al value and any extra health bene­fits) than ‘ordin­ary’ food.

From the blog of the FSA’s Chief Sci­ent­ist:

The most com­pre­hens­ive review in this area that has been car­ried out to date […] con­cluded that there are no import­ant dif­fer­ences in nutri­tion con­tent between organ­ic and con­ven­tion­ally pro­duced food.

[…] It’s a fact that con­ven­tion­al pro­duc­tion meth­ods per­mit the use of a wider range of pesti­cides than organ­ic. That said, some pesti­cides can be used in organ­ic pro­duc­tion.

[…] To me, the main take-home mes­sage from this report is that in order to eat a healthy diet it doesn’t mat­ter if it’s made up of organ­ic or con­ven­tion­ally pro­duced food. Surely that’s good news for all of us?

From the FSA’s press release, which also links to the study itself (pdf):

What [this study] shows is that there is little, if any, nutri­tion­al dif­fer­ence between organ­ic and con­ven­tion­ally pro­duced food and that there is no evid­ence of addi­tion­al health bene­fits from eat­ing organ­ic food.

The Soil Asso­ci­ation (an inde­pend­ent body that cer­ti­fies organ­ic food) didn’t like the con­clu­sions reached, but made a good point about the study:

Without large-scale, lon­git­ud­in­al research it is dif­fi­cult to come to far-reach­ing clear con­clu­sions on this, which was acknow­ledged by the authors of the FSA review.

It’s worth not­ing that there were a small num­ber of nutri­tion­al dif­fer­ences found between organ­ic and con­ven­tion­ally pro­duced food but that these dif­fer­ences were “not large enough to be of any pub­lic health rel­ev­ance”. It’s also use­ful to real­ise that people buy organ­ic food for myri­ad oth­er reas­ons.

For a short sum­ma­tion of the argu­ment between the vari­ous parties inter­ested in this research (spe­cific­ally, the FSA and Soil Organ­isa­tion), the BBC has a well-bal­anced news item.

Update: Seed Magazine’s look at the issue is also worth a read.

6 thoughts on “The ‘Benefits’ of Organic

  1. Linda

    I don’t know any­body who buys organ­ic because of pur­por­ted nutri­tion­al bene­fits. I prefer pro­duce that has not been sprayed with pesti­cides (wheth­er or not it has been cer­ti­fied as “organ­ic”) because I don’t want to eat pesti­cides, nor do I want them mess­ing up the soil biota or seep­ing into ground­wa­ter.

    In addi­tion to which, fruit and veg from loc­al farm­ers’ mar­kets (which, where I live, tend to be grown without pesti­cides wheth­er or not cer­ti­fied organ­ic) taste bet­ter, because they have not been bred to be har­ves­ted before ripe­ness and shipped across the US or the globe.

  2. Dan

    This doesn’t sur­prise me (which is why I was so care­ful to hedge my ana­logy about organ­ic food and breast­feed­ing as a pop­u­lar shift rather than a sci­entif­ic one!), although one sig­ni­fic­ant lim­it of the study (from a brief skim) seems to be that it basic­ally addresses the nor­mal nutri­tion­al con­tent of food and finds no dif­fer­ence but fails to com­pare the amount of oth­er, non-“nutritional” chem­ic­als used (“This review does not address con­tam­in­ant con­tent (such as herb­i­cide, pesti­cide and fun­gi­cide residues) of organ­ic­ally and con­ven­tion­ally pro­duced food­stuffs or the envir­on­ment­al impacts of organ­ic and con­ven­tion­al agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices,” 1).

    So in oth­er words, you’ll get the same amount of fiber and vit­am­in C from an organ­ic potato that you will from a non-organ­ic one, but the study is silent on wheth­er there is a sig­ni­fic­ant amount of dan­ger­ous pesti­cide residue, for example, on the non-organ­ic one. Though I could be mis­read­ing it …

  3. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    Thanks, Linda.

    As you say, taste and envir­on­ment­al reasons/ethics are major argu­ments for buy­ing organ­ic, and I think these are prob­ably the fun­da­ment­al reas­ons for most organ­ic pur­chases… and they are more than val­id, I would pre­sume.

    This research is good news for those who can’t afford organ­ic food*, as, like the first quote says,

    The main take-home mes­sage from this report is that in order to eat a healthy diet it doesn’t mat­ter if it’s made up of organ­ic or con­ven­tion­ally pro­duced food.

    *While organ­ic food isn’t more expens­ive than con­ven­tion­ally pro­duced food per se, in most supermarkets—where the major­ity of food is pur­chased, espe­cially for low-income families—it is more expens­ive.

  4. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    Dan,

    This is a very good point, and one that I believe the news reports them­selves should have picked up on more. How­ever, as always, there are caveats:

    Organ­ic foods are not free from chem­ic­al pesti­cides (as opposed to nat­ur­al pesti­cides), GM mater­i­al, or oth­er chem­ic­al addit­ives such as nitrates by any means. In fact, the reg­u­la­tions state that up to 0.9% of this mater­i­al does not have to be labelled or taken into con­sid­er­a­tion when being cer­ti­fied organ­ic.

    Of course, this is a lot lower than non-organ­ic food.

  5. Michael Ströck

    Sigh.… Organ­ic agri­cul­ture is more sus­tain­able, pro­duces less waste and is way, way health­i­er for the people that actu­ally work in it. That’s why it’s a good thing, not extra vit­am­ins…

  6. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    Indeed, and this isn’t being con­tested.

    I buy organ­ic, loc­al and sus­tain­ably when I can–I sug­gest oth­ers do, too.

    It may seem like old news to those who are in such circles, but research show­ing no stat­ist­ic­ally sig­ni­fic­ant health and nutri­tion bene­fits between organ­ic and con­ven­tion­ally pro­duced food may be news to oth­ers (as is evid­ent from the many com­ments on the FSA blog).

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