By Emma King
Many consumers believe that ‘organic’ is synonymous with being more nutritious, better for the environment and tastier than conventionally grown food, but how do the two really compare?
At first glance, organic appears to win the points for environmental protection. The range of pesticides and fertilisers available to organic farmers is restricted to a handful of natural chemicals and their use is limited. This should mean less fertiliser run-off into rivers and fewer chemicals persisting in the food chain.
But using ‘natural’ rather than ‘synthetic’ chemicals in organic farming doesn’t necessarily make organic farming superior. A natural chemical may be just as harmful to the environment as a man-made one, and synthetic compounds may be just as benign as natural ones. Also the amounts of chemicals used in conventional farming vary widely depending on the crop. For example a cotton field needs many more pesticides than an olive grove. So we shouldn’t assume than a conventionally produced crop is necessarily more damaging to the environment than any organic crop.
Organic farming is also less efficient. Conventional crops give greater yields so less land is taken up than for organic crops. Less land for agriculture means more land that could be set aside for nature.
Organic retailers often boast about the benefits of being organic to animal welfare, but it would be somewhat unfair to think that conventional farmers don’t look after their animals too. A recent report comparing dairy farms in the UK found no significant difference in animal welfare between organic and conventional farms: organic farms were found both at the top and the bottom of the table for lameness, a big problem in dairy farming. The UK’s organic laws do ensure a minimum standard of animal welfare, but so does the ‘Red Tractor’ symbol on conventionally produced food.
How many of us have bought organic chocolate thinking it was fairtrade too? I’ll admit I was surprised to learn that only one Green & Black’s product, Maya Gold chocolate, was fairtrade. Both organic and non-organic food can be fairtrade, but being organic alone doesn’t mean a product is fairtrade – it’s only fairtrade if it carries the fairtrade symbol.
When it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, the difference between foods lies more in how they get to the consumer than the way in which they were farmed. Both organic and conventionally farmed items need diesel-fuelled farm machinery, and when grown abroad, both types of crop need to be imported by boat or by air.
The arguments for and against organic get complicated when talking about carbon dioxide and methane, but on the whole, the two types of farming produce about the same amount of greenhouse gas.
Most research so far shows that organic and conventionally produced foods have much the same nutritional content, although a few studies show that some organic foods are more nutritious. Flavonoids (antioxidants) have recently been in the news for being at levels nearly twice as high in organic than conventional tomatoes. The researchers think that this is because the conventional tomatoes were over-fertilised; they didn’t need to produce the flavonoids to take up nitrogen from the soil.
The organic lobby complains that conventional crops are soaked in pesticides that are bad for our health, but studies have found pesticide residues on conventionally grown foods are almost always nil.
Better taste is highly-trumpeted claim by organic retailers, but taste more often depends on the variety or breed, country of origin and the season than whether it’s organic or not. Of course organic chestnut mushrooms will taste better than conventional button mushrooms; button mushrooms have no flavour anyway. The same goes for strawberries – the only conventional variety available in supermarkets all year round is the cardboard-flavoured ‘Elsanta’, any other variety, be it organic or not, will taste better than that excuse for a fruit.
So what’s the verdict?
There are good reasons to buy and not to buy organic, but if you do want to be more ethical on a student’s budget, the ‘Red Tractor’ symbol and fairtrade mark are the one’s you should be looking for.
Photo taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/panos_voudouris/1295208738/
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