Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Organic food: safer, healthier, greener, ethical

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It is clearly wrong to say that organic food is not safer, healthier and more nutritious than that grown with artificial chemicals and drugs, as argued by Dr Anne Buckenham from the Crop Protection Association (Bristol Evening Post letters page, Feedback: 'Organic Food', 8 January). Organic foods generally contains more of the good stuff our bodies need for good health as well as less of the contamination that we don't need.

Properly and naturally look after the soil that crops come from and the animals used for meat, eggs and dairy, and their products will look after you. Most people will probably feel this is the case instinctively, as evidenced by growing organic food sales. There is plenty of science to support their instincts too and so the Labour Government's Environment Secretary David Milliband is mistaken to say that food grown with chemicals is not second-best, except perhaps for when the food has been imported from a long distance away, increasing its environmental impact ('Organic farmers hit back at Milliband', Bristol Evening Post, 8 January) .

Take what is perhaps the biggest UK food crisis in decades - BSE. Organic farmers banned the feeding of animal protein to farm animals long before the BSE crisis hit beef farmers. There have been no recorded cases of BSE in any animal born and reared organically.

Antibiotics are used massively in non-organic animal farming. They are used to promote rapid growth and to prevent disease in intensively reared, overcrowded farm animals. This is demanded by our current food system, with its emphasis on quantity not quality. High standards of animal welfare in organic farming minimise the need for antibiotics and other veterinary drugs which are used only when strictly necessary.

Organic fruit and veg generally have greater levels of beneficial minerals, essential amino acids and vitamins. Research comparing the nutrient contents of organic and non-organic fruit and vegetables reveals a strong trend toward higher levels in organic produce. Of 27 valid comparisons of the mineral and vitamin C contents of organic and non-organic crops, 14 showed significantly higher levels in organic produce while just one favoured non-organic.

Organic crops are not artificially protected with pesticides so they tend to produce more naturally occurring phytonutrients, many of which are now known to have protective,antioxidant properties. Some are proving useful in the prevention and treatment of cancer. The artificial fertilisers used in chemical farming tend to increase the water content of fruit and vegetables. This tends to produce the bigger yields our current food systems demand but it dilutes the nutrient content of non-organic fruit and vegetables.

Organic milk, according to research carried out by scientists in Britain and across Europe, has nearly 70% more essential fatty acid omega-3 that we hear so much about as essential for a healthy body. Studies have also shown that organic milk contains significantly more vitamin E. Organic cows milk good is because the animals eat a much more natural fresh grass and clover diet. Most non-organic cows eat a more grain-based diet containing cereals, maize and protein supplements.

Yes its important and healthy to get at least our five-a-day fruit and veg, whether it is organic or not, especially if the food source is local, regional or British because this lowers the environmental impacts of food production. However, eating at least five organic fruit and vegetables a day is even better, doubly so if local/seasonal. Non-organic apples can be sprayed up to 16 times with 36 different chemicals, many of which cannot simply be washed off. Government tests, in 2005, found pesticides in 80% of non-organic apple samples.

Pesticides are found on one in three non-organic foods tested each year, and multiple residues of up to seven different compounds are not uncommon. Pesticide safety is tested for individual compounds. Unfotuneately we know very little about the 'cocktail effect' of multiple residues. Some research suggests that they may be hundreds of times more toxic than the same compounds individually.

The British Medical Association say that some pesticides can be stored in our body's fatty tissues for years, raising concern about them being carcinogenic (cancer causing), mutagenic (causing birth defects) and neurotoxic (damaging to our nervous system). Organic farmers predominantly use natural methods to control pests so choosing organic is the best way to avoid pesticides in your food.

Organic food processors are prohibited from using a host of ingredients that researchers say may be harmful to our health such as aspartame, hydrogenated fat, phosphoric acid, sulphur dioxide, monosodium glutamate, or artificial flavourings and colourings, none of which are prohibited in non-organics.

My answer to the question: 'Do you think organic food is worth buying?' - is generally yes it is, especially if it is British, and we should be doing more to support it, increase the amount produced and help to bring prices down. Clinical and observational evidence in humans suggests that organic food, with fewer toxins and more nutrients, can make a difference to our health. Few, if any, dispute that organic farming is better for the environment and is more ethical too. It has to be said that it's difficult to do controlled health studies with people because of complicating factors like genes and lifestyle. In controlled animal feeding trials though, the evidence is clear. Animals fed organically produced feed are healthier in terms of growth, reproductive health and recovery from illness.