Organic Farm Foods

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So, is organic food really better? - Times Online

By Amanda Ursell
Published: April 2 2007

New evidence suggests that some organic foods do have more nutrients. But the jury’s still out on whether they’re worth the high price.

Fifteen years ago, to receive your vegetables, muddied and misshapen, in a cardboard box delivered direct from a farm would have seemed cranky in the Tom and Barbara Good sense, unfashionable in the extreme. Now, if you don’t shop that way, you probably know someone who does. Our preference for buying organic produce – grown without chemical pesticides and using methods touted as environmentally sustainable – has defied expectation. Analysts predict that the organic market, which has soared by 30 per cent in the last 12 months to £1.6 billion, will be worth £2.7 billion by 2010 and there are genuine fears that demand might outstrip supply.

It is not just box schemes (delivering produce to the doorstep) that are fuelling the organic boom. Specialist organic food stores are sprouting in high streets across the country with the largest, a colossal 80,000 sq ft European flagship store of the US “green” supermarket chain Whole Foods Market, to open in Kensington, West London, this summer. Ordinary supermarkets, too, are seeing more customers shun intensively farmed goods. Organic food purchases increased by 20 per cent at Waitrose, 28 per cent at Morrisons and 12 per cent at Asda in the past year. One quarter of Tesco customers now buy at least one organic product each week.

However, some question what all the fuss is about. Despite decades of research, they argue, there is no real proof that it is unsafe to eat produce that has been sprayed with pesticides or that organic food is actually superior to nonorganic. Now, however, new tests suggest that the drive to rid food of chemicals may be worthwhile. Last week, scientists from the University of California, Davis published research in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture that sided firmly with the belief that organic food is better.

In tests on kiwi fruit grown organically and by conventional farming methods, the American researchers found that the organic fruit had 14 per cent more vitamin C and 17 per cent more polyphenols – antioxidant compounds shown to have benefits including the ability to lower cholesterol and ward off cancer. “All the main mineral constituents were more concentrated in the organic kiwi fruit, which also had higher ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and total polyphenol content, resulting in higher antioxidant activity,” wrote Dr Maria Amodio and Dr Adel Kader. The researchers found the organic fruit to have thicker skin which, they suggest, may have developed as a natural defence mechanism against pests in the absence of chemicals to kill them.

In separate studies, German researchers found organic tomatoes and apple purée to be nutritionally superior to conventionally grown varieties, while a French team found that organic peaches contained more beneficial compounds and nutrients than those grown with the use of pesticides.

Organic milk, too, has been shown to contain 68 per cent more heart-friendly omega3 fatty acids than ordinary milk by scientists at the University of Liverpool. Peter Melchett, policy director for the Soil Association (SA), the leading representative of organic producers, which certifies 70 per cent of all organic produce sold in the UK, says that the studies were carried out rigorously and by academic institutions renowned for their conservative approach. “This new research shows that, in fact, organic food has more of the beneficial and less of the detrimental elements required in the diet,” he says.

Certainly the rapid growth in consumer demand for organic food suggests that many consumers are increasingly wary about ingesting chemical residue on conventionally farmed food. But others argue that the debate over whether organic is really better for us is far from over.

In January, David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, said that consumers who opted for chemical-free, naturally produced food did so as a “lifestyle choice” and should not assume that they were consuming a nutritionally superior diet to anyone else.

Indeed, it does seem that as soon as one researcher uncovers positive findings another unearths something negative. For instance, tests on supermarket chicken breasts at Strathclyde University last year revealed that organic poultry was less nutritious, with lower levels of omega3 fatty acids, and it was less tasty than nonorganic birds.

Added to this, organic food may not be worth its premium price. According to Morgan Stanley, the investment bank, it is 63 per cent more expensive than conventional produce; Dr Anna Ross, an economist at the University of the West of England, says that organic carrots carry a premium of up to 285 per cent.

In America, the Environmental Working Group, a major independent research advocacy organisation, recently conducted an analysis of more than 100,000 US Department of Agriculture tests on organic foods and found that, whereas some – apples and potatoes, for example – do contain fewer chemicals, others are not worth the extra cash. Even though banana growers use up to 50 chemicals, “multiple residues are rarely found on conventional bananas” which are protected by the skin, they said. The EWG recommended that organic carrots be purchased “only if money is no object”.

Even advocates of organic food worry that the standards of the industry are being driven down by the pressures of mass production. The SA promotes chemical and cruelty-free food as the route to better health, biodiversity and animal welfare. Around 350 pesticides are allowed in conventional farming and an estimated 4.5 billion litres of chemicals are used on British farms every year. In its infancy, the SA waged a lonely war against farmers, still the majority, who worked this way. Today, although the SA’s certification system is more rigorous than the EU’s, its battle is buoyed by charities, manufacturers and consumers. But as food giants and supermarkets press organic farmers to meet demand, some fear that the industry’s principles, and those of organisations such as the SA, are being compromised.

Lawrence Woodward, the former head of the Soil Association and now director of the Elm Farm Organic Food Research Centre in Berkshire, finds it discomforting that organic standards are no longer absolute. “The modern organic movement in the UK set out to change the way that supermarkets produced and sold food, but now supermarkets are trying to change the movement,” he says. “One day we are going to wake up finding on the supermarket shelves something labelled as organic that really isn’t organic.”

Woodward says that organic certification by the SA and other bodies of farmed salmon contradicts the ideal. Organic salmon is produced in the UK and does not allow the routine use of chemical treatments; the feed is closer to the natural diet of wild salmon. But the fish are still kept in cages and their waste is not recycled. So organic salmon farming reduces the biodiversity in the farmed area and the water around it by shutting out other water life. In America, no salmon, even Alaskan wild-caught (sold here as organic by Duchy Originals, among others), has organic classification.

Similarly, Woodward and others are critical of large poultry flocks. The Soil Association says that chicken farmers should limit capacity in their sheds to 500 birds, but it still certifies farms with up to 1,000 per shed. It also allows some mechanisation in brooding and hatching, and chicks can be reared from nonorganic broods. Beak trimming, to prevent birds pecking each other, is also permitted, although critics argue this is necessary only when birds are under stress.

Organic labelling of eggs is particularly suspect. Even though they are up to three times more expensive than battery-laid eggs, the demand for organic eggs is rising by 20 per cent per year. The vast majority of birds destined to produce organic eggs spend up to 18 weeks being fed nonorganic food in the same indoor conditions as hens destined for other uses. It is only after a transfer process of six weeks, during which the pullets are moved to a laying farm with access to the outdoors and fed an organic diet, that the eggs can be classified as organic.

Government regulations allow flocks of up to 12,000 birds with a density of nine birds per square metre to be described as organic as long as they have access to outdoor grazing. As with chickens, the SA-recommends laying sheds contain 500 birds, but in practice up to 2,000 are sometimes allowed. Interestingly, the only SA approved eggs sold in UK supermarkets are organic Columbian Blacktail eggs from Waitrose.

Melchett admits that the SA and organic industry “is under pressure to dilute its standards as the organic demand grows, but on the whole I would say we have resisted”. He adds: “We are continually striving to raise standards and we know we are not quite there yet.”

Consumers should be reminded, he says, that anything labelled organic must meet the minimum of EU standards; SA certified produce has acquired more rigorous standards. “We might not be progressing as fast as some people would like, but we have come a long way,” he says. “If consumers buy locally grown, seasonal, organic food they will be doing just about as much good as anyone can for themselves and the environment.”

Organic foods that are proved to be better nutritionally

Whole organic milk is naturally higher in omega3 fatty acids – crucial for brain development in children. It is, according to the Soil Association, higher in betacarotene which is a precursor to vitamin A, essential for a strong immune system, and vitamin E, needed for a healthy heart.

Organic potatoes and green vegetables are higher in vitamin C.

Organic meat, allowed to roam in fields and feed on grasslands, has leaner flesh, is lower in fat, richer in protein and lower in calories.

Organic tomatoes have higher vitamin C and betacarotene levels than conventional tomatoes although, paradoxically, the latter have higher levels of lycopene, thought to help protect against heart disease and prostate cancer.

Organic kiwi fruits have been found to have significantly higher levels of vitamin C and polyphenols.

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