Truths (not headlines) about the organic debate….
5th September 2012
There are numerous reasons as to why someone chooses to buy organic produce ranging from the belief that organic produce all round healthier, to concerns over farming practices and chemical exposure. For me personally it is a desire to reduce the toxic load on my body and also a wish to support traditional farming practices. This is especially important to me when it comes to animal products because if and animal is going to give it’s life for my eating pleasure then I think the least I can do is give it a comfortable existence beforehand!
Having studied the human body for a number of years at university, chemical exposure is a big worry of mine. Think about the medicinal drugs we take and how they are always accompanied by a safety leaflet listing the possible side effects and drug interactions. Then consider how many older people are on a multitude of drugs just in order to deal with the side effects of another. Pesticides (the umbrella terms for herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and bactericides) do not come with this same information for the ordinary consumer – in fact you’re lucky if you know which (probably in multiple) have been used on any given product. The soil association suggests that your standard non-organic Cox’s apple may have been sprayed 18 times before harvest.
So this leads to another question –what effect do these drug/chemical have in combination? Well the research into this area is very limited – drugs/chemicals are usually tested in isolation – but what we do know is it’s not good. So what we have is known as the ‘cocktail effect’ and no one really knows what this does to the body, although this infinite combination of chemicals had been linked to problems with the immune system, fertility, obesity, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Now as the recent literature review (a summary of lots of research) in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests, even organic produce is not 100% pesticide free – something that the Soil Association is very clear about. However, what we do know is that the exposure to pesticides is much less in organic produce – 30% less according the researchers at Stanford University tell us. I’ll take that, thank you very much! They even found that children consuming organic diets had lower urinary pesticide levels but they qualify this by saying the significance of this to health is unknown. Call me overly cautious but I’d rather not expose either myself or any children to unnecessary chemicals that have an unknown effect in the body when combined with the thousands of other chemicals that we are exposed to on a daily basis. Why risk it?
And similarly in the practice of conventional animal husbandry (breeding and raising livestock), there is a problem with the extensive use of antibiotics. These wonderful lifesaving drugs are being used prophylactically, or in other words as a preventative measure, leading to a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria which may be passed to humans. I think most people are aware that we should only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary if only to prevent this exact problem (never mind the effect on gut flora balance) so why do we allow it to occur on our food chain? What this means is that non-organic pork and chicken has a 33% increased chance of containing 3 or more antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. What a lovely thought as you tuck into your roast dinner!
Obviously my allegiance is well and truly in the organic camp but it should be pointed out that the authors of this piece of research themselves describe the evidence base as weak and that research quality varied greatly. This is one of the problems of making conclusion based on a literature review. So this week’s headlines including The Telegraph’s “Organic food is ‘not healthier’” and the BBC’s “Organic food ‘not any healthier’” are somewhat misleading (once again). But well done to the Guardian the more balanced headline “Organic food: nutrition study leaves health question unanswered”. It just goes to show that you can spin a piece of research to fall on either side of the argument!