As organic fortnight kicks off again, the same old arguments surface like fat old walrus seals: is it really any better for you? Isn’t it all just a ploy to get us to spend more?
It turns out that what we need is more hippies to volunteer for scientific experiments. Problematically, it’s usually the big food companies who fund food research, and so there has traditionally been a bit of a dearth of work on organic and biodynamic food (in fact one scientist told me that it would probably be pointless applying for money if you have the word ‘biodynamic’ in your title: – “they won’t even bother reading the application”).
But things are changing, and for the last three years the EU has been forking out large sums in order to get the answers to these precise questions. The QLIF project (Quality Low Impact Food) , inaugurated in 2004 at a cost of 18m euros, has carried out dozens of studies on every conceivable aspect of organic and ‘low input’ food production, and some interesting answers are beginning to emerge.
First off: organic food can be better for you but it’s not automatically the case. The QLIF 2007 report revealed that in one test, conventionally grown wheat, for example, had a higher protein content than organic wheat. In another study organically grown tomatoes turned out to have more vitamins than their conventionally grown counterpart tomatoes, but lower levels of lycopene (a very useful antioxidant). And when the QLIF folks ran tests to see if certain pesticides really did effect the reproductive status of pigs, they drew a blank, even though simliar tests had come up positive.
However there is an increasing body of work which demonstrates the much-vaunted superiority of organic food on human and animal health. Rats eating organic tomato paste, for example, had better immune systems, organic apples had loads more flavonoids and vitamin C than conventionally-grown varities, and organic milk from grass fed cattle had more a-linoleic acid (an essential omega-3 fatty acid), more conjugated linoleic acid (associated with reduced risk of obesity) and more vitamin E.
The big problem is how to find out more. One of my favourite studies is into allergies: the scientists took a group of families living anthroposophically (too complicated to go into here – take it from me, they’re basically fully-fledged hippies, not taking antibiotics, breastfeeding until age four, and eating organic and biodynamic food wherever possible), and compared them to families living ‘conventionally’, whatever that is. The allergy rate was a full 50% lower. “but it remained unclear”, as the report says politely, “to what extent this was due to organic food consumption”. And to what extent, presumably, it’s down to those dear old hippies who don’t even have full sets of matching anti-bacterial tupperware.
“What is needed… are new, well-designed animal model or human dietary intervention studies,” say the QLIF people. In other words, we need more hippies, more studies, and more organic tomato paste all round. Then we shall finally be able to prove once and for all that organic food rules.