By Lucy Hyland
The recent research into the nutrient value of Organic vs. Non-Organic foods seemed to miss the point. Food is a highly complex medium, and to break it down into its individual components is to ignore a tangled web.
Following a large investment from the Food Standards Agency in the UK, we now know that in 10 out of 13 nutrients examined, there is no difference between organic and non-organic foods. Taking this on board, the report ignored the much wider elements of organic farming that aim to benefit the individual, the community and the environment. So in keeping with National Organic Week, 14th-20th Sep, let’s remind ourselves of what we are celebrating?
The growth in sales of organic food and goods has been unprecedented in recent years. However, it’s not just farmers and food producers that have been a part of this. The White House has started an organic garden to grow, in their words, ‘delicious healthy vegetables’. The American Community Growers Association state that the number of community gardens in North America has grown to over 18,000. One of the largest seed manufacturers in the UK has recently stated that sales of vegetable seed have overtaken flower seed for the first time.
A similar pattern is happening in Ireland. Allotments and community gardens are springing up all over the country, being funded and promoted by European and Irish government programmes. Increasing numbers of towns are setting up farmers markets, enabling farmers to sell direct as their consumers ask them questions about growing techniques and recipes. This reflects a desire for people to bridge the gap between themselves and their food.
When a person chooses to buy organic goods, their decision is often based on a broader perspective than their own individual benefit. In terms of farming practices, non-organic farmers have over 400 chemicals, antibiotics and growth hormones available to them and, in terms of processed foods, non-organic processing allows over 500 additives, etc. Organically farmed and processed foods allow a small percentage of these and do not allow the inclusion of MSG, Aspartame and genetically modified foods. It is what is in food, as much as what is not in food, that is becoming important.
We know that eating well is the foundation of good health. In the ongoing debate, we need to remember that the organic verses non-organic decision about food does not play as important a role in health as overall eating habits do. However, we are becoming increasingly clearer about the role of phytonutrients, which are created within plants when they come under attack from pests or the environment, i.e. plants develop their own way of protecting itself against harm. We now understand that these nutrients aren’t just part of the plants defence mechanism, but that they play a vital role in protecting humans against diseases such as heart attack, cancer and stroke. There are over 40,000 phytonutrients, such as flavonoids and isoflavones, being catalogued at present, and some research has shown organic plants to contain up to 50% more of these health enhancing properties.
The UK has been measuring the nutrient content of soil since World War 2 and is seeing a worrying decline. It is recognised that what we put in our soil, water and air does matter. The organic industry claims that it nourishes the soil and does not have such a worrying affect on the water supply. According to the New Scientist in 2004, organic farming ‘increases biodiversity at every level of the food chain, all the way from bacteria to mammals.’
Organic farming is just one in a variety of factors that affect the quality of food. We cannot underestimate the importance of the cultivator, the climate, soil type and storage. Perhaps the study has simply reminded us that organic farming may not provide all of the guarantees we are looking for in terms of nutrition, health or safety.
One of the most interesting recommendations to come out of the research was for all of those involved in organic studies to improve the scientific quality of their work. All sides of the argument may have to accept that, at this point in time, we do not have all the answers. However, looking at the increasing movement that is occurring in this country and others, we cannot escape the insatiable desire of people to reconnect with the food they are eating. So, get your wellies on and start digging.
Lucy Hyland runs a company called Food for Living and is a member of the Irish Association of Nutritional Therapists www.IANT.ie