Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Great Organic Debate

The food and health business, already a minefield of guidelines around what to eat, how much and when is complicated even further with the option to go organic or not. 

  We often worry about ensuring we get enough fruit and vegetables in our diet but now we need to also consider  where these come from and are they safe, sustainable and as nutritious as organic options?
With the increasing demand for food supplies around the world and the growing focus on profits, farmers are pushed to increase outputs more than ever before. To meet these demands, they gave up on traditional style farming a long time ago and instead now use synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to produce greater volumes. They are rewarded with more incentives while the consumer suffers from lower quality produce, increased exposure to harmful substances and in some cases inferior tasting food.

So what does organic really mean.  In order to be classified as organic, food needs to be produced under strictly regulated standards and approved by organic certification bodies such as the Soil Association here in the UK, and the USDA organic program in the US. It  needs to be grown with natural fertilizers such as manure and compost, while weeds are controlled naturally through more traditional methods such as crop rotation, hand weeding, mulching, and tilling. GMOs are strictly prohibited and finally, insecticides are replaced with birds, traps and good animal farming to control pests and diseases. The emphasis instead is on animal welfare and prevention of ill health.
For processed foods, at least 95% of the ingredients have to be organic for it to be classified as such.

Why organic?
While we know organic is more expensive (often because it's more labour intensive, involves smaller farms so higher fixed costs and receives no government subsidies) , are there any real benefits to eating this way?
Despite considerable research into understanding whether organic foods really are more nutritious, there is still no clear answer. While some foods such as milk and tomatoes were found to have significantly more benefit when eaten organic, the jury is still out on confirming this across the board. In the taste stakes however, organic foods usually come out top especially with meat and dairy which is  reared on a healthier diet and is free from antibiotics and growth hormones. In research carried out in the US, 43 % of consumers choosing organic food say they do so  because of “better taste” 1
However, these are not the only reasons that need to be considered .  
Non organic farming has a considerable affect on the environment and puts human health at risk. Pesticides or fertiliser laden run off from farmlands washes into rivers, lakes, and streams, contaminating the water and destroying habitats, affecting birds, insects and other small animals. 
Long term affects of pesticides on our bodies are still not know but generally pregnant woman are more at risk and babies, with an undeveloped immune system, are more vulnerable to suffering side effects such as developmental delays and behavioural disorders. Farm workers and people who are exposed to the pesticides on a daily basis are also more susceptible to health issues later on.
 Organic farming on the other hand has multiple environmental benefits as it helps conserve water, reduces soil erosion, increases soil fertility, and uses less energy. In the case of  livestock, organic farming provides a more humane life for the animals, giving them an area to graze and freely roam. In return disease is reduced and the necessity for antibiotics, poor quality feed and growth hormones is removed.
So what does this mean for you and I? Like everything we teach our clients, being informed is key. Having the knowledge to make the best decisions for yourself is critical but at the same time remembering - "everything in moderation". 
  • Regarding fruit and vegetables, we recommend you buy the things you eat the most often organic or at least the items on the Dirty Dozen list which are highly contaminated with pesticides. Items listed on the clean 15 are usually ok conventionally grown due to low pesticide residues. 

  • With animal products we are a little more specific and only encourage organic meat and dairy  consumption which is free from antibiotics and growth hormones. More specifically on an ethical level the animals have been humanely raised and not subjected to crowding, stress-inducing conditions and poor diet.

However with costs sometimes making this less feasible to follow, we also recommend considering the following:

  • Sustainability and buying and supporting local farmers. In our opinion the carbon footprint of organic blueberries flown in from Chile is way higher than buying conventional blueberries from a local UK farmer and should definitely be a consideration point. Not only is buying local  reducing the negative impact on the environment but it also encourages the local economy and tastes better as it can be picked riper and requires no preservatives or irradiation to keep it fresher for longer. A key point to note here too is that often local produce is farmed using organic standards yet the organic certification process is  so costly they cannot afford it.  Find your closest local farmers market here: http://www.localfoods.org.uk/  
  •    Stay seasonal. Products bought in season are not only cheaper, but will be fresher and therefore tastier.
  •  Finally shop around, often different stores do bulk offers for organic produce or check the freezer aisle for a good deal.

What it comes down to in the end is awareness, knowing the impact non organic farming is having on the environment and our own health and making the best decisions you can within the budget you can afford. It is important to note that the benefits obtained from eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables still outweighs the health risks of consuming  non organic produce.

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