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The case for organic food

Zookeepers at Copenhagen Zoo recently noticed that if the chimpanzees and tapirs are offered both organic and conventionally grown bananas, they will always choose the organic fruit. While the chimps always eat the organic bananas together with the skin, if forced to settle for a conventionally grown banana, they will ensure that it’s peeled first. Perhaps they can perceive something most humans fail to notice.

Organic farming is essentially the form of agriculture practised everywhere from the dawn of time until the modern chemical revolution started in the 19th century. Administered at the national level, organic certification follows a fairly consistent set of criteria across the world. Chemical pesticides and artificial fertilisers are prohibited, while unnatural interventions such genetic engineering (GE) and irradiation are also excluded. In animal husbandry, no antibiotics or growth hormones can be used.

Over the past few years, the organics industry has maintained an average worldwide growth rate of around 20-30 per cent, about 10 times that of conventionally grown food. In some sectors such as dairy, demand is outstripping supply. Having been tucked away on the fringes for decades, organics is entering the mainstream, and some organic entrepreneurs have been trading their sandals for suits.

Aided by its size, Australia has a far greater land area under organic cultivation than any other country. In line with global trends, our organics sector is growing by 25 per cent a year, with an annual turnover of $450 million. When buying organic, it’s important to look for the certification logo of one of Australia’s seven accredited certifying bodies.

In the shops, organic produce is generally more expensive because of a combination of factors, including stricter quality standards, more labour-intensive techniques (organic farms create more employment per unit of production) and a lack of economy-of-scale advantages due to the smaller size of organic farms. The extra cost varies a great deal depending on the type of food and sometimes organic can even be cheaper. At the time of writing, the impact of the drought had pushed the average price of conventionally grown lettuce and cauliflower above that of their organic equivalents.

According to findings in the 2005 Australian Organics Consumer Report, the notion that organic food consumers are significantly more affluent than the population as a whole is incorrect. The report’s most interesting finding was their high level of education; more than half of those polled possessed a degree.

 

The debunkers

As the organics industry continues its exponential growth trajectory, it has been treading on some powerful toes in areas such as agribusiness, pesticides and GE. Attempts to compromise its core values have been made in the US, where the Department of Agriculture has repeatedly tried to water down organic standards; such a move would make life easier for the large players moving into this lucrative market.

In what appears to be an orchestrated campaign, a flurry of negative stories targeting organic food have been appearing in News Limited newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch. We are told that organic food lacks many of the health and environmental benefits ascribed to it, encouraging the rhetorical question “Why bother to pay more?”

Readers of the Sunday Telegraph (March 18, 2007) were presented with a headline ‘Organic food is no better’. Interestingly, this phrase had been used a couple of months earlier in a quote from the UK Environment Secretary, David Miliband. Beginning with the words “Organic food has no nutritional benefit…”, the Telegraph piece claimed its nutritional value is no higher than that of conventionally grown food and that most fruit and vegetables tested (whether organic or not) have no pesticide traces.

Supporting comments came from Professor Jennie Brand-Miller at Sydney University and dietician, Shane Landon. Brand-Miller added qualified support for the view that organic food has a lower environmental impact, while Landon claimed it would be necessary to eat truckloads of non-organic food before accumulating a “meaningful” quantity of pesticides. He also referred to organic oranges looking “a bit funny”, an indirect comment on the rigorous standardisation of supermarket produce according to shape and size.

Although this news item referred to nothing more specific than “research” to back up its nutrition claims, Elizabeth Meryment’s column in The Australian (April 7) revealed more. A study by Samir Samman, Associate Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Sydney, had found that when comparing organic with conventional, the only nutritional advantage observed was an increase in vitamin C. No information was provided about the types of food or the other nutrients tested.

According to Meryment, the growth of organics will inevitably mean environmental compromises such as sacrificing localised production in favour of a more centralised structure in which food is transported longer distances and from overseas.

By mid-April, the arguments had shifted again. An opinion piece by journalist and sociologist Bettina Arndt in the Melbourne Herald Sun (April 13) took the view that organic agriculture, supported by “affluent trendies”, is taking an anti-technology stance through its decision not to embrace scientific developments including GE. Her piece bore a close resemblance to arguments put forward by the two anti-organic, pro-GE lobbyists mentioned, Lord Dick Taverne (head of Sense about Science) and C J Prakash (who runs the AgBioWorld campaign). The backgrounds of both these figures are covered on the PR exposure site LobbyWatch.

 

Avoiding toxic residues

While it is true to say that most produce has no pesticide traces, according to the Biological Farmers of Australia’s consultant nutritionist Shane Heaton, official pesticide residue monitoring programs in Australia, in line with other Western countries, show that around one in three items tested has detectable pesticide traces.

Although organic food can never be 100 per cent free from these chemicals due to occasional spray drift migration from nearby farms, a 2003 study by Ruth McGowan for Victoria’s Department of Primary Industries showed that the state’s organic produce is virtually chemical-free. Organic agriculture is endorsed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which acknowledges that pesticide, veterinary drug and nitrate residues are lower.

Unlike in the UK, where a range of foods are residue-tested on a quarterly basis by an independent committee, in Australia such tests are carried out every few years by the government body Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Although its report in 2003’s 20th Australian Total Diet Survey concluded that pesticide residues fell within ‘acceptable health standards’, not everyone is convinced. According to Jo Immig of the National Toxics Network, the average healthy male is used as the benchmark in toxicity testing. Effects on women, children and the elderly may be far greater.

Also overlooked by decision makers are the complex reactions between multiple pesticides and chemicals to which one person may be exposed: data in the 20th Australian Total Diet Survey shows that across the nectarine samples, 13 different pesticides were identified. According to Heaton, potentially synergistic combinations can be hundreds of times more toxic than individual pesticides.

Responding to Landon’s comment about consuming truckloads of food before ingesting a “meaningful” level of pesticides, Heaton’s message is that, measured over a lifetime, we do, in fact, ingest “truckloads” of food. Many chemicals accumulate inside the body, adding to what is now referred to as the “body burden”. While some pesticides can be partially removed by washing or peeling, “systemic” chemicals penetrate the food itself and can only be avoided through going organic.

In a remarkable 2005 study published in the US journal Environmental Health Perspectives, a group of children in Seattle were measured for levels of the two organophosphate pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos. After the children switched to an organic diet, concentrations of both chemicals dropped to a non-detectable level.

 

Nutritional advantages

Conventional agriculture relies heavily on fertiliser inputs, which result in a faster, lush growth and a high water content in the end product. Crops grown in organic fields, where soil fertility is built up by traditional practices, have more dry matter. Microorganisms that are killed off by chemical applications thrive under organic regimes where they help to break down the soil, making more nutrients available to plants.

As a result, while conventional crops generally possess sufficient levels of the basic nutrients required for crop growth, they often lack trace minerals such as zinc, selenium, manganese, copper and molybdenum that are important for the maintenance of human health. Alarming studies from developed countries show the nutritional quality of staple foods steadily dropping over the past few decades. To make up this deficiency, two possible solutions are to take vitamin supplements or, if most studies are correct, switch to organic food.

The message conveyed by recent anti-organic media is contradicted by several credible studies from Europe and the US that do indicate improved nutritional outcomes. In March, results from an EU research program investigating organic tomatoes, apples and peaches found higher levels of the antioxidants vitamin C, polyphenols, beta-carotene and flavonoids. These protect against heart attacks and cancer, improve circulation and reduce cholesterol. More specifically:

  • Polish organic tomatoes were higher in vitamin C, beta-carotene and flavonoids, but lower in lycopene.
  • Polish organic apple puree was higher in phenols, flavonoids and vitamin C.
  • French organic peaches had higher polyphenol levels at the time of harvest.

In 2005, joint Danish/British research focusing on organic milk found higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, 75 per cent higher beta-carotene and 50 per cent higher vitamin E. An earlier organic milk investigation by the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research at Aberystwyth in Wales identified a minimum 64 per cent higher omega-3 content. From a health perspective, omega-3 oils are considered good for the heart and brain.

At a farm in Marysville, California, a team from the University of California arranged for two kiwifruit crops, one organic and the other conventional, to be grown on adjacent plots. In addition to 17 per cent higher polyphenols and 14 per cent higher vitamin C, increased levels of minerals such as potassium and calcium were also observed in the organic plot.

A set of tests from 1993 published in the US Journal of Applied Nutrition involved the purchase of several foods (apples, potatoes, pears, wheat and sweetcorn, both organic and conventional) in the western suburbs of Chicago in order for the mineral content to be compared. Levels of several trace minerals in the organic samples were between 60 and 178 per cent higher.

In her peer-reviewed university graduate thesis, US nutritionist Virginia Worthington produced a comprehensive meta-analysis that investigated about 40 previously published studies, concluding there is overwhelming evidence for organic food being more nutritious. She is convinced that eating organic can make the difference between an adequate diet that meets recommended daily amounts (RDAs) and a deficient one.

 

Stretching the budget

Apparently, some nutritionists avoid advocating organic produce because they think families will compensate for the increased price by purchasing less of it; intake of fruit and vegetables obviously plays an important role in maintaining good health.

However, the notion that organic food is too expensive for the average household to afford is undermined by Average Weekly Household Spending figures showing the average amount spent on fruit and vegetables is exceeded (sometimes by a large margin) by financial resources allocated to recreation, fast food, junk food and alcohol. Only a small reallocation within the average family budget would be necessary to support a partial or complete switch to organics.

Given the average household’s medical and health costs also exceed spending on produce, the extra cost of organics could be seen as a wise investment to reduce the risk of expensive ill-health later in life.

 

Finally an organic standard

Last September, Courier Mail readers may have picked up a misleading impression from the headline ‘Organic food rort’. This refers to a difficulty that has long been a thorn in the side of Australia’s organics industry and which is close to being resolved.

While a national standard for organic food exports is administered by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, until recently Standards Australia declined to create an equivalent Australian standard for the domestic market. In such a regulatory vacuum, there is scope for uncertainty over whether food labelled “organic” is the genuine article. The industry urges consumers to avoid being misled by sticking to foods that have been certified. After years of lobbying by the Organic Federation of Australia and further pressure from the Australian Consumers Association, last November, Standards Australia agreed to create a national regulatory framework for organic and biodynamic produce this year to replace the current private system.

 

Environmental benefits

According to the FAO, agriculture is responsible for one-third of the world’s greenhouse emissions. Little wonder it has been described by some commentators as humanity’s most environmentally destructive occupation. Steps to reduce this impact need to be taken and organic farming offers some solutions:

  • Due to the absence of herbicides and pesticides, organic farms have a greater plant, bird and animal biodiversity.
  • Carbon emissions per hectare are roughly halved, largely due to the avoidance of chemical fertilisers. These require a large amount of energy to produce and represent the greatest energy component of conventional farming.
  • The use of chemical fertiliser also results in higher emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas roughly 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2).
  • Fuel-hungry machinery is often substituted with human labour.
  • As produce is likely to be sold when in season, energy-intensive long-term cold storage is usually avoided.
  • Distribution systems are usually less centralised, resulting in shorter transport distances. The best local options are farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture box schemes.

Local versus global

With its continuing growth, organics is starting to attract the attention of large corporations such as Kraft Foods, Wal-Mart (the world’s largest retailer) and numerous overseas supermarkets. As they get in on the act, the organics industry is faced with two options; embracing centralised distribution and globalised trade, and sticking with its local roots. Possibly both avenues may be pursued, by different elements within the movement.

In The Australian, Elizabeth Meryment observes that the UK currently imports much of its organic produce from Africa. This unsustainable practice is increasing “food miles” and creating extra carbon emissions. Unlike the UK, Australia has a wide variety of climatic zones and Heaton estimates that about 99 per cent of organic produce bought in Australia is grown here. Because of a lack of domestic processors, the figure for organic groceries is far lower, and perhaps around 50 per cent is imported.

Adding the effects of the drought to the prospect of the Murray-Darling Basin agricultural region drying up, there is a strong argument for decentralisation and “localisation” within the organic food sector to mitigate against future shortages. Ultimately, once the world’s oil supply starts to run out, agriculture may have no option other than to adopt local organic practices.

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

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