Last week there was a meta-analysis of the health benefits of eating organic which was summed up in the press as there is no evidence for any nutritional or health benefit of eating organic. Except if you actually read the paper the conclusion said that it is possible that eating organic leads to less ingestion of pesticides. I then got in to a bit of a Twitter row with Le Canard Noir and Simon Singh about organic so I wanted to write down a few points as to why this is not a simple issue and why Singh is wrong to try and make it a single view issue.
Singh and others are fighting against their perception of quackery amongst the organic movement. They are right that the Soil Association says a lot of stupid things. For example they promote homeopathy for animals as organic - no it is not organic it is stupid. They have also wanted to ban the use of wormers on organic farms which is also stupid and will result in a negative impact on animal welfare. This and the fact that they are bullies over silly chemical regulations when the chemicals decay faster than they say and when they have little scientific evidence. So I agree the organic movement is certified by a group with a very poor track record. This is the negative side but are there any positives or should we just say it is a crackpot idea?
I have to also say I am son of a farmer who contributed to the further industrialisation of milk production in the breeding of super milkers. My family had a herd of pedigree Friesians but the Friesian is almost an extinct animal as it has been bred with the Holstein to produce more milk (at the cost of quality because of reduced fat content). Towards the end of his life he deeply regretted what had happened in British Dairy farming and the loss of quality. For example to him we produced tasteless rubberised cheese because we had lost the skills of the small dairies and cheese-makers. He felt we went to far in following policies that destroyed taste.
So is there any clear positive evidence for organic?
Well the ecological impacts are one of the reasons we buy organic.
Firstly, why do we want to encourage the more intensive use of pesticides and other chemical interventions? I was shocked by my cousin spraying the grass field where the cows will graze with herbicides. We NEVER did this when I was on the farm and my grandfather was in charge. This is just laziness. Cows will eat most of the weeds so what is the point. You have to worry about Ragwort which will kill them and thistles are annoying but there are ways of limiting the thistles by "topping" which just involves mowing off the tops and this is how we used to do it. This is laziness and the excessive use of anti-biotics is also laziness as it allows you to have lower levels of animal welfare and higher densities increasing production. Personally I would sooner have a happy cow as they are a tastier cow. Banning any use of antibiotics as the soil association want is stupidity because this has a harmful effect on animal welfare where some of the organic policies have improved animal welfare, such as the requirements for space for organic chickens.
The second point is the increase in monocultures. We now sow many fewer varieties of crops and on a larger scale with much more chemical intervention. Now from an evolutionary perspective this is not a good idea. More variety means avoiding the problem of having "all your eggs in one basket". Diversity means it is less likely that some pest/virus can affect the entire crop. In the case of bananas the spread of disease and the lack of diversity threatens global production. Nature does not limit diversity and so it is unwise for us to ignore nature's example.
So that is the ecology point what about the more direct effects such as those mentioned in the conclusion of the study? That is the minimal exposure to pesticides and other chemicals. Perhaps the simplest example is BST a hormone given to cattle to increase milk production. The producers assured the government agencies that it was not present in the milk and so it did not need clinical trials as all drugs must undergo (they cost a fortune). But they were wrong (or lying depending on your view) it does go into the milk. So the EU banned its use and banned import of milk from treated cattle. Then the WTO using the corporate evidence said this was unfair and is now penalising the EU for an "unfair" trade restriction against the US, where it is used. There was a similar problem with growth hormone in beef cattle.
What about pesticides? Well these have not been reported to get through to consumed food in significant amounts. But there is some evidence that they might be. Hive collapse disorder is a problem particularly in the US where bee hives are suddenly emptied. Recently there was evidence that this might be caused by trace amounts of pesticide introduced by the beekeepers when they replaced the combs with sugar filled cells. They had moved to using glucose-fructose syrup from genetically modified maize that had been treated with a herbicide to which bees are particularly sensitive. These trace amounts might be responsible for the collapse disorder. So pesticides can get in to the food chain although in very small amounts and it is not clear that these have any effects on human health. But we cannot say they definitely don't because we have not properly tested them.
There is another negative side to organic and that is the lower yields. As the world population grows and as we face dealing with the effects of climate change can we afford to be organic? Our first duty is to make sure everyone is fed and organic cannot do that as the losses in yield are significant. There are somethings that can be organic without substantial changes in yield - lamb raised on welsh mountains could be an example. The opposition to genetic modification is also unreasonable as we are just accelerating breeding we are not creating Franken-food and the organic movement has fed the hysteria about GM. In fact GM can have environmental benefits by reducing the needs for herbicides as well and producing plants that can live in poorer conditions.
So I understand why Singh and others might feels anti-organic for the ridiculous nutritional claims, or the irrational arguments against GM, but there are other arguments not so easily discounted. I would also like to test to see if they can find a taste difference between a mass produced factory farmed supermarket chicken and an organic chicken. I think that they would and sometimes just because it tastes better is reason enough.