is organic food better for you?

Most of us like to think that our assessment of the world and the decisions we make are based on evidence, rationality and logic. However, we are emotional beings, full of prejudice and ego, with the added complication of media manipulation thrown in. Science makes valiant efforts to exclude emotional bias and self-interest through systematic testing and peer review before its conclusions are presented as proof. It’s the best show in town, but is far from perfect as scientists are emotional beings too, and often see their work selectively published (or not at all) to meet commercial and political interests.

In 2009 the Food Standards Agency published a report suggesting there were no significant health benefits to eating organic food. Their director, Professor Krebs, concluded that it was a “lifestyle choice”, ie. that you are a mug and I am a quack. I was a little sceptical; my own instinct based on 26 years of growing and eating organic food is that it makes a huge difference. Broadly speaking, the slow steady soil-based growth typical of organic crops produces enhanced flavour, texture and, I would bet my house, more nutrition. So strong is my conviction (common sense or prejudice?) that I would say if science fails to reveal this, it is the science at fault and not my vegetables.

Five years later another, much larger study has been published in the highly respected British Journal of Nutrition. An international panel has concluded that significant nutritional benefits come from eating organically: 18-69% more antioxidants (linked to reduced risk of many diseases and cancers), far lower pesticide levels (no surprise) and lower toxic heavy metal levels. I’m tempted to extrapolate that per unit of nutritional value, our veg might even be cheaper.

How to explain the difference between the two studies? Perhaps science is not as objective as we thought. They’ll get it right in the end, but for now common sense prevails, which means not spraying our veg with nerve toxins, accepting slower growth, and occasionally sharing them with a few bugs. They will often cost a bit more as a result but that doesn’t make you a mug or me a quack, it just makes Professor Krebs seem excessively dogmatic and narrow minded.

Guy Watson