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Organic Foods: Claim of high nutrients is a myth

It is a common confusing moment. You are standing in an isle of a grocery store contemplating either to buy that organic tomato that is double in price of a normal tomato. You are inclined to buy organic tomatoes because you have heard that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional counterparts. But the higher price of organic food is making you think twice. To buy or not to buy.

A thought biased towards organic food crosses your mind. Your friend told you that she only buys organic groceries because organic farming is good for environment.  You tell yourself that you care about your grandchildren’s welfare, so you take few steps towards the section displaying organic carrot. As you stretch your hand to select some and put in a plastic bag for weighing, you also remember that they are lower in artificial chemicals. This strengthens your resolution and you pick 6 organic carrots put them in a bag and convince yourself you are caring about your health as well as environment.

What if I tell you science does not support the claims that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods.

First of all, what is organic food? Any food labelled organic comes from crops and animals farmed for food without use of man-made chemicals.

Organic purist wants us to believe that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown crops.  Initial scientific studies carried out in early 2000 suggested that organic foods were more nutritious that conventional foods.  For example, organically grown fruits and vegetables were shown to have more Vitamin C, iron, Magnesium and lower nitrates than conventional fruits and vegetables[1].  This spurred confidence among consumers and the growth of the organic food sky rocketed.

In late 2000, in particular 2009, was a very significant year for organic foods. It is in this year a study reviewing 50 years of research on organic foods dating from January 1959 to February 2008 threw cold water on the hype of nutritional benefits[2].

After scouring all that heap of data of over 50, 000 scientific articles the researchers from London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London, United Kingdom concluded that there was no scientific evidence to suggest that organic foods are nutritionally superior to their counterparts[2, 3].

Out of the 13 nutrients that they reviewed which included vitamins and minerals, 10 of them were occurring in the same quantities in organic and conventional foods. It was only Phosphorous and Nitrogen that was higher in organic foods.

A more recent study funded by the real advocates of organic farming that is The International Centre for Research in Organic Food Systems (ICROFS) in Denmark found that there was no difference in micro nutrients in carrots, kales, apples and potatoes grown under normal and organic farming[4].  This study is very significant in that it was funded by a body that supports organic farming.

When the mineral content in eggs of hens reared under organic farming and those conventionally reared was compared, it was also found out that organic eggs had lower content of Zinc and Phosphorous compared to conventional eggs[5].

Nutrients in foods can differ if crops are grown in different soil types or microclimates. Otherwise, either organic or conventional farming method does not by its own right influence the nutrients. For example if conventional crops are grown in a microclimate and soil with more minerals that soil used for organic, then conventional crops will have higher levels of those minerals.

It is possible that you buy organic food because they are lower in chemicals and not because they are more nutritious. Organic foods are lower in artificial chemicals. This is obvious since they are grown without use of artificial fertilizers or artificial chemicals. But this is not to say that organic foods are totally free from farm chemicals.

Infact four studies comparing the levels of chemicals in organic and conventional foods found out that organic foods contain approximately 15 per cent chemical residues while conventional foods contain around 60 percent. This means that if you buy 10 organic tomatoes two of them will have chemical residues while if you bought 10 ordinary tomatoes, six will be laced with chemicals[6].

 The presence of chemicals does not mean that either organic or conventional foods are dangerous.

What it means is that these chemicals can be detected under the recommended testing procedures. What these studies found out and which is important is that the levels of chemicals encountered in all the tested foods including conventional were below the set limits. Actually less than 10 percent of the set limit. This means that both the conventional and organic foods are safe for human consumption. Therefore no reason for alarm.

Countries with good regulatory systems strictly enforce the levels of farm chemicals found in foods ensuring conventional foods have chemicals that are below the set limits. In this case the food does not pose any health risk. When all the necessary control measures are taken, half of the chemicals found in authentic organic foods originate from long-banned persistent pesticides such as DDT and related compounds. The other half is as a result of ‘drift’ from conventional farms to organic farms.

Organic farmers use birds and good insects to eat bad insects. If pesticides and insecticides are used, they are derived from natural component of a plant or bacteria. It is therefore almost a crime to imagine that organic farmers can unscrupulous use artificial chemicals in their produce.

Assuming that the artificial chemicals found in organic foods are as a result of unavoidable contamination, it is beyond reasonable doubt that organic foods are lower in artificial chemicals. But when all farming procedures are followed correctly, conventional foods contain chemicals at levels that are below the set limits meaning that these foods are as good as organic foods.

Is organic food good for the environment?

Organic farming is considered to be good for the environment because the surface and underground water near the farms are not polluted by artificial chemicals. Organic farming also ensures that there is a not pesticide residue in the atmosphere to affect biodiversity.

Perhaps organic farming is good for the environment if it is only carried out in a small scale where the land is small and number crops or animals are few.

In a small farm it is possible to get enough manure from few animals to apply in the farm. It is also possible to control the weeds by mulching and tilling.

To generate adequate organic manure for large farms, more animals have to reared and more land has to be used for silage. That extra land for more animals and for growing the feed is presently not available. It would require clearing of forests and river banks to increase arable land. For example in Europe organic winter wheat yields only half of conventional wheat, that is 4 tonnes per acre compared to 8 tonnes per hectare for conventional wheat. To feed the Europe population organically, it will require additional 28 million hectares of farmland. This is equal to forest land in Germany, France and England combined.

The statistics is not better for organic milk. According to a report by UK department for environment, organic milk requires 80% more land to produce per unit volume than conventional milk. Organic chicken requires 25% more energy to produce that conventional chicken. Such high requirement of energy generates over 40 percent of greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide that conventional rearing[7].  The biggest shortcoming of organic farming is that there is lower production approximately 40% than conventional farming. This makes it very difficult to generate enough food to feed the world.

Currently, approximately 40 percent of Nitrogen used in farming comes from synthetic fertilisers. To replace this with manure it requires 8 billion additional cattle from the current 1.4 billion. The animals will require forage and space which all requires clearing of forests and rivers that we want to protect. If such large number of cattle is kept in a limited space it will lead to soil erosion.

Can organic food feed the world?

World population has increased six fold in the last century from just less than two billion to seven billion. The earth’s crust has not increased an inch to increase farming land. The percentage of this population that live in developed countries has more than enough food. Thanks to Nitrogen fertiliser and artificial chemicals. Developing countries that rely on traditional farming methods which does not use fertilisers or chemicals (ideal organic farming) complain of food insecurity!

Verdict:

Organic foods generally contain lower levels of artificial chemicals but they are not entirely free of chemicals. Conventional foods, although they contain chemicals, if they are farmed following recommended chemicals and fertilisers, the level of residual chemicals encountered in the eventual food is below the set limits. This makes the conventional food safe for human consumption. Both organic and conventional foods are comparable in terms of nutrients and flavour.

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References

1.             Worthington, V., Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains. The

Journal of  Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 2001. 7(2): p. 161-173.

2.            Dangour, A.D., et al., Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. 2009.

3.            Dangour, A.D., et al., Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review. p. 203-210.

4.            Kristensen, M., et al., Effect of plant cultivation methods on content of major and trace elements in foodstuffs 

                and retention in rats. J. Sci. Food Agric. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 2008. 88(12): p.

2161-2172.

5.            Kucukyilmaz, K., et al., Effect of an organic and conventional rearing system on the mineral content of hen

                eggs. Food Chemistry. 132(2): p. 989-992.

6.            Winter, C.K. and S.F. Davis, Organic Foods. J Food Science Journal of Food Science, 2006. 71(9): p. R117-R124.

7.            Green, K., S. Manchester Business, and A. Great Britain. Dept. for Environment Food and Rural, Environmental

                  impacts of food production and consumption : a research report. 2006, Manchester; London: Manchester

Business School ; Defra.

 

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