Organic farming has its roots in biodynamic agriculture, a system of farming advocated by the esoteric philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the late 19th and early 20th century. Steiner was a weird fellow who tried to reconcile science and spirituality and believed that the spiritual world was accessible to the human senses and intellect.
His ideas, known as anthroposophy, live on today in alternative approaches to medicine, biology, agriculture and education. It has been widely derided as pseudoscience, occultism, quackery, and a dangerous cult.
Biodynamic agriculture contains useful elements, such as considering a farm as an ecological unit, but it also includes practices from astrology and sympathetic magic. It is fundamentally unscientific.
That wouldn’t be a problem for organic farming, except that the Soil Association, formed in 1945 to promote the idea of organic farming, continued the resistance to scientific analysis.
As just one example, take Patrick Holden, who was the director of the Soil Association from 1995 to 2010, was the founding chairman of British Organic Farmers in 1982, is a patron of the UK Biodynamic Association, is a founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, and is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services to organic faming.
In an interview with The Guardian, Holden references Steiner and speaks approvingly of the role of homeopathy and astrology in farming. He cites the late Agnes Fyfe, an astrologer-alchemist, who published papers in the British Homeopathic Journal on the influence of planets on plant sap. He says she wouldn’t be published in Nature, but that this is a problem. He considers the need for scientific validation an “obsession”, and merely thinks that these nutty ideas are hypotheses yet to be proven.
Leaving aside the crazy, unscientific basis of organic farming, do the claimed benefits of organic food hold up to scrutiny?
If you just read the media, you wouldn’t know your arse from your elbow on the question of whether organic food is healthier for you. Let’s consider just one news outlet, the venerable British Broadcasting Corporation.
“Researchers say there is now firm evidence that organically-grown produce is healthier to eat than conventional crops,” it said in early 2000.
“Organic food is no safer or more nutritious than conventionally grown food, according to the chairman of the Food Standards Agency,” it reported later that same year.
“Organic vegetables may contain higher levels of health-giving chemicals, claim Scottish researchers,” it backtracked in 2002.
“The Advertising Standards Authority has upheld two complaints against the Soil Association for describing organic as ‘healthy’ and ‘more humane to animals’,” it reported in 2005.
“There is no evidence organic food is better for you than conventional food,” it declared in early 2007.
“Organic produce is better for you than ordinary food, a major European Union-funded study says,” it flip-flopped later that same year.
“Organic food is no healthier than ordinary food, a large independent review has concluded,” it published in 2009.
“Eating organic food will not make you healthier, according to researchers at Stanford University, although it could cut your exposure to pesticides,” it reaffirmed in 2012.
“A new scientific review claims organic foods are higher in nutrients and lower in pesticides compared with conventionally grown varieties,” it reported in 2014.
The first concludes: “There is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.”
The second adds some caveats: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
The third breaks entirely with the consensus: “Organic crops, on average, have higher concentrations of antioxidants, lower concentrations of [cadmium] and a lower incidence of pesticide residues than the non-organic comparators across regions and production seasons.”
These results were trumpeted far and wide. “Major study documents benefits of organic farming,” reported a science writer at Washington State University. “Organic foods are tastier and healthier, study finds,” reported National Geographic.
But experts interviewed by the BBC cast a great deal of shade on the study and its results:
Prof Tom Sanders, head of the Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences Division at King’s College London’s School of Medicine, said: “This article is misleading because it refers to antioxidants in plants as if they were a class of essential nutrients, which they are not.
“In terms of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat), the organic products contained less protein. Other nutrient differences were trivial and well inside the normal range of variation that occurs with different varieties, soil types and variations in weather.
“This study provides no evidence to change my views that there are no meaningful nutritional differences between conventional produced and organic crops.”
Prof Richard Mithen, leader of the Food and Health Programme at the Institute of Food Research, added: “There is no evidence provided that the relatively modest differences in the levels of some of these compounds would have any consequences (good or bad) on public health.
“The references to ‘antioxidants’ and ‘antioxidant activity’, and various ‘antioxidant’ assays would suggest a poor knowledge of the current understanding within the nutrition community of how fruit and vegetables may maintain and improve health.”
Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said: “PHE welcome this addition to the evidence base but we cannot assess the potential impact of organic foods on public health from this study alone.
“Ultimately, we all need to eat more fruit and vegetables regardless of whether they are organic or not to form part of a healthy balanced diet, which will help protect health.”
It would seem that the only paper that found improved nutrition with organics might have wildly overstated its case.
Yet the argument about pesticides warrants closer scrutiny. It seems obvious that conventional farming, which uses industrial pesticides, would produce food with more pesticide residues than organic food, which prohibits most conventional pesticides.
But that observation is deceptive in a number of respects. It does not imply that pesticide residues are harmful. In fact, the 2012 study explicitly states that differences were not clinically significant, and there was little risk that pesticide residues in either organics or non-organics would exceed allowed limits.
Bruce Ames, who turns 90 this month, is a legendary biochemist at the University of Berkeley who published over 550 papers, many of which focus on cancer and aging. He is one of the most cited scientists in all fields, and developed the most widely used test for carcinogeity.
Ames has noted that the typical person eats 10,000 times more natural pesticides than residues of synthetic pesticides. He says there is no qualitative difference between “natural” and “synthetic” substances, and that natural chemicals are as likely to be carcinogenic as synthetic substances, that is, about half the time. Many ordinary food products would be found to be carcinogenic if the same criteria were applied that are used in testing synthetic chemicals.
“Everything you eat in the supermarket is absolutely chock-full of carcinogens,” he told the New York Times.
“But most cancers are not due to parts per billion of pesticides. They’re due to causes like smoking, bad diets and obesity.”
In “Why natural may not equal healthy”, a 2002 article published in the respected journal Nature (paywalled), former British Food Standards Agency head John Krebs wrote:
“A single cup of coffee contains natural carcinogens equal to at least a year’s worth of carcinogenic synthetic residues in the diet.”
But nothing is better than a very small amount, isn’t it? It is widely assumed that there is a linear relationship between the dose of a substance and its toxicity in humans. That is not generally true, however.
The human body copes well with toxins at low doses. That’s what our liver and kidneys are for. In fact, there’s a concept in toxicology known as hormesis involving many substances and stressors, which suggest that the dose-response curve in many cases is U-shaped: low doses provoke a beneficial response in the body, but high doses are harmful.
Vaccines, fasting, sunlight and exercise are examples of a hormesis response. So are many vitamins and minerals, medicines, bacterial exposure, exposure to some toxic chemicals including pesticides, and even nuclear radiation. So the notion that trace amounts of pesticides, or indeed fertilisers, are harmful to the human body, is simply not supported by science.
Besides, organic farmers are hardly saints in this department. For example, they often use blue vitriol (copper sulfate) on their crops. It has fungicidal, herbicidal and fertilising properties. According to the European Chemcials Agency, copper sulfate is toxic to humans when ingested orally, can cause serious eye irritation or damage, and is hazardous to aquatic life. It has been found to be harmful to beneficial insects such as bees. It contains impurities such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, zinc and nickel. It also bio-accumulates, which can lead to toxic copper levels in soil. It is far more hazardous than glyphosate.
Another pesticide that is permitted in organic farming is Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly known as Bt, infamous for being the target of campaigns against genetically modified (GM) crops that contain specific Bt proteins for protection against pests. The Bt bacterium produces some 130 different toxins, all of which target different insects. Only one of them is typically engineered into crops to combat a specific pest in GM crops. The organic farmer, however, applies the bacterium in all its toxic glory, which doesn’t discriminate in which insects it attacks.
The safety of Bt use has long been assumed, but a recent report by the European Food Safety Association said that there is actually not enough data to determine toxicological safety to operators, workers and bystanders, or the risk posed by ingested Bt residues. There is no information on its risk to drinking water, none on the potential transfer of genetic material of Bt to other organisms, and no studies on the persistence and multiplication in soil and the aquatic environment.
Rotenone is a pesticide permitted for use on organic farms. It has a non-specific action, so it kills a multitude of insects, both harmful and beneficial. In aquatic environments, is a highly effective killer of fish. It is classified as moderately hazardous by the World Health Organisation, and its material safety sheet is filled with warnings about its hazards. It has also been associated with Parkinson’s Disease in farm workers.
These pesticides are no safer than their conventional counterparts. Proponents of organic farming methods that use substances like copper sulfate, rotenone and Bt are hypocrites, and frankly, are dishonest when they tell consumers no pesticides or herbicides were used in their organic food.
A common claim by organic food producers is that it tastes better than conventionally-grown produce. This is, at least, plausible. Smaller scale, lower yield and slower growing times might produce fruit and vegetables that are less watery, and therefore more tasty. Considering the high price consumers pay for organic produce, the difference would have to be substantial and consistent, however. It isn’t.
In the case of milk, organic milk finished dead last in a taste study conducted at the University of Missouri. Another study, involving orange juice and milk found that organic orange juice tasted better, but organic milk did not. “Therefore, it is concluded that the global claim that ‘organic food tastes better’ is not valid, and each product type should be treated separately before a claim can be made.”
A study at the University of Leiden found that a multitude of factors affect taste perception, including things like ambient light, ambient noise and mental distraction.
Even a pro-organic publication from The Organic Center, which claims to “bring you the science behind organic”, admits that many surveys about taste do not find a difference. On the few occasions when they do, it warns: “Measuring organoleptic [sensory] quality is tricky and inherently subjective. Experimental research indicates that the ‘organic’ label, by itself, sometimes increases consumer acceptability of the food. This is known as the ‘halo effect.’ The expectation of better quality in organic fruits and vegetables may be responsible for the conviction by some consumers that organic produce tastes better.”
The question of environmental impact is more subtle. It is true that organic farms appear to be better for the environment than traditional, large-scale, intensive, industrialised farms. However, it is not clear that this can be attributed to organic farming methods, per se.
It may simply be attributable to the fact that organic farmers typically have a higher awareness of the environmental impact of their operations, which leads to more careful management of their farms.
Studies show that integrated farm management, which “uses the best of modern technology and traditional methods to deliver prosperous farming that enriches the environment and engages local communities,” can be as environmentally beneficial as organic farming.
What matters is the attention to detail in managing the ecosystem on and around farms, including soils, water, air, and wildlife, to promote higher productivity with lower environmental impact. Doing so is not unique to organic farming.
“It is noted that such benefits may be achieved also by conventional agriculture when carefully managed,” says one comprehensive study.
The distinctive drawback of organic farming in this context is that it produces lower yields, which requires more land for the same output, and requires additional land to produce manure for fertilisation, instead of relying on synthetic fertilisers. There are also some risks with organic farming, such as loss of soil nutrients, and erosion on hilly terrain. These factors can easily cancel out the apparent sustainability benefits of organic farming.
The singular criterion on which organic farming really shines, however, is profitability. It’s a great money-maker. Studies have found a great variation in production costs, but organic farms enjoy the benefit of substantially higher market prices. In some cases, they also receive government subsidies that conventional farms do not enjoy.
The question then becomes, given that organic farming is based on unscientific principles of magic, given that organic food is not superior in terms of nutrition, safety, or taste, given that organic farming inferior in terms of agricultural yield, and given that the environmental benefits of organic farming can be replicated by integrated farm management on conventional farms, what exactly are you paying a price premium for?
I would argue that you’re paying extra for no substantial benefits at all.
This festive season, forgo the fancy organic cuisine in favour of equally healthy, tasty and safe conventional produce. Spend the money you save on presents for the kids, or on a deserving charity. Unlike organic food, that would really make the world a better place. DM