Organic farming and food production is becoming more popular and more profitable year on year, and the amount of organic food sold in the UK and in many other countries just keeps rising. This is partially a result of concern for the safety of common pesticides and the desire to encourage kinder, more environmentally friendly food production techniques. But is this really the best way to do it?
As trendy (and tasty) as organic food can be, it isn’t always better for your health or even more environmentally sustainable. It is a case of considering each purchase and the origin of each food separately.
However, we can give you a few general guidelines on the real benefits and even a few negatives about eating organic.
The advantages of real organic food
- Most definitions of ‘organic’ preclude the use of genetically modified crops or animals. Whilst there is no clear evidence that GM crops are harmful in themselves, many people prefer to avoid them on principle.
- Organic farming techniques also tend to be much less cruel to the animals themselves. Good organic farming techniques see the animals eating a more natural diet and living in more natural conditions – especially if it is also ‘free range’.
- Organic food production is generally more sustainable and gentler to the environment. In fact, organic farms tend to harbour a greater diversity of plant and animal species.
- Organic foods can be expected to have lower levels of pesticides and pesticide residues. As there is growing concern about commercial pesticides’ role in causing cancer in humans, this is more important than ever. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that as much as 70% of non-organic crops also show zero pesticide residue. Still, better safe than sorry!
- Organic food generally does not contain preservatives. In fact, there are very few chemicals you can use and still call foods organic. Many people are allergic to these preservatives, and some studies link them to cancer as well.
- Organic foods tend to be presented in an unprocessed or minimally processed state. Therefore they have dramatically lower levels of hydrogenated fats. Hydrogenated fats have been linked to heart disease and other health problems, so they should really be avoided.
The problems with organic food
- Foods can be produced ‘organically’ and still use a small assortment of artificial chemicals. Most organic food production does use chemicals, in some small way. If you are sensitive to these chemicals, going organic won’t necessarily protect you.
- Organic foods are generally more expensive than the non-organic alternative.
- Organic foods contain few preservatives, which we mentioned as a positive. However, preservatives do have an important role – they cause foods to spoil more slowly. Organic foods may spoil faster, and that contributes to food waste (as well as making it even more expensive on a practical level).
All that untidy, inconclusive evidence
Surprisingly to some, several large and well-respected public bodies (including the Swedish National Food Administration, the French Food Safety Agency and the UK Food Standards Agency) assure us that organic food is not safer or more nutritious than non-organic food, in any measurable way.
In the same way, we tend to assume that eating organic foods must be healthier than eating non-organic foods. Well, again we see large public bodies (in this case the UK’s Consumers Association) reporting that there is just no scientific consensus that this is the case. That means there may be no health benefits at all.
Now, that does not mean it isn’t tastier, more environmentally friendly and more responsible in other ways, but we can’t really say that organic food is definitely better for us.
What are the current organic trends?
Whilst sales of organic produce are increasing year on year, thought must be given to the farmers and producers. In fact, the last set of statistics show a decrease in producers over the last few years of an average 4.5%. Unfortunately, it’s a case of mathematics – farmers are struggling to afford to keep their land and livestock under the stringent organic farming rules required in the UK and consequently several producers have reverted back to their old methods. Subsidies do not seem to help them enough, and arguably you could say that the profit from organic produce appears to be greatest for the retailers.
A recent report by the Soil Association in the UK showed sales of £2.25 billion purchased by domestic consumers, with the largest portion of that market being the chilled convenience sector for items such as tofu, vegetarian and vegan sales having the largest increase. Consumers are also leaning more toward independent retailers and home deliveries from specialist organic produce companies in the form of vegetable boxes. One of the reasons that keeps supermarkets in the race to offer organic produce is the way that the market is currently being driven, with wines, canned goods and other packaged products being easy to source in a weekly shop.
Predictions going forward into 2020 show that the market is also leaning towards not just food, but general household goods in the form of kitchen equipment and cleaning products using more sustainable organic sources. It seems that environmental responsibility is at the forefront of the minds of UK consumers with all the recent publicity on ditching plastic and saving the planet. It is about time that this side of the market is considered as just as important.
Written by Bev Walton, BSc Nutritional Science
I achieved a First-Class Honours degree in BSc Nutritional Science, Nutrition Sciences from the University of Reading and now have over 35 years experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for magazines and websites as well as ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I’m also a proud member of the Guild of Food writers.