Organic is different

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall - 15 July 2014

Hugh Fearnley WhittingstallFor many of us, especially those who grow our own, the idea that organically produced fruit and veg is good for you just seems instinctively right. When you know what has – and hasn’t – gone into the soil and how little the sophisticated processes of nature have been interfered with by the grower, then the inherent vital, vibrant goodness of the resultant crop seems obvious.

I grow organically both at home and at River Cottage and I can see the positive effects on the environment – the soil brimming with worms, the abundance of insects and wildlife – as well as tasting them in the quality of the fruit and veg I harvest. The care taken in growing this produce is reflected not only in the deliciousness of the dishes I sit down to eat but in the fact that I can almost feel them doing me good.

So it comes as no surprise to me that Newcastle University researchers, having crunched the numbers from close to 350 separate studies, are able to show significant differences in the nutritional quality of organic and non-organic crops, with less pesticide residue, heavy metal and nitrogen in the organic harvest as well as more of the antioxidants that have been shown to boost health and protect against some chronic diseases. In fact, the researchers go so far as to estimate that, in terms of the antioxidants you’re getting, a total switch to organic crops could be equivalent to adding another portion or two of fruit and veg to your daily diet.

As always with this kind of thing, I’m sure there will be critics questioning the science. But I would want to ask what their motives might be. The fact that this is a massive, peer-reviewed meta-analysis, published in the respected British Journal of Nutrition, and that the researchers have made all the data available on their website, is enough to give me confidence in the findings.

Veg boxI think this study should be game-changing for our politicians and civil servants. Because what it does, pretty emphatically, is shatter the myth that how we farm does not affect the quality of the food we eat. We already know that organic farming is better for wildlife and the environment, and better for animal welfare. And now the science is showing us that organic is better from a nutritional point of view as well.

The question then becomes: what are we going to do about it? For too long, organic production has been marginalised by those in power, written off as a fad or a lifestyle choice. The time has surely come for the Government to change its attitude towards organic food. It should be supporting organic farming and giving it the policy and structural support it needs, in order to ensure a healthier food future for all of us.

Hugh is founder of River Cottage and a writer, broadcaster and campaigner, widely known for his uncompromising commitment to seasonal, ethically produced food.

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05 August 2014 19:10

I agree with Rosemary. Regardless of how much I have earned and I am now on low income, I always prioritise good quality food including organics. Sadly many in the West don't understand nutrition and its link with well-being. Even hospitals serve up atrocious meals to patients! So many complain about the cost of organics but are happy to spend on technological upgrades that offer little improvement on products. One only has to look at landfill sites full of built in obsolescence waste to understand where priorities lie. Or look at the millions of tons of organic waste emitting methane into the environment and wasting valuable resources. Consumerism encourages citizens in West to seek out cheap clothing, technology and food with little consideration for their own or the producers well-being.

Rosemary Marshall
25 July 2014 11:52

Sorry Kimberley this is simply not so in a highly developed country. The trouble is that people have been sold the myth of cheap food for so long, but the chickens are rapidly coming home to roost. We do not need new flat screen TVs, ipads, mobiles and all the other paraphernalia that people think are essential. It comes down to values - proper nutrition is essential.

John Butterworth
25 July 2014 11:47

The problem is not generally that the price of organic food is too high. Rather, it's that some people simply don't have enough money, or perhaps prefer to spend it on non-essentials.

Liz Archer
25 July 2014 11:32

Yes, the cost of organic food is higher, and is always raised as an argument against its promotion. But I would suggest that we all ask ourselves how much of our normal weekly food shop do we waste and end up sending to landfill? We must attach greater value to our food, both as the means by which we sustain our lives, and in relation to our spending on other things. To my mind, good food is a high value item, and organic food should be especially valued as it is known to be better for our health, the environment and wildlife. I am well aware that low income families have a problem, but solving food poverty is not about rejecting organic farming - it is about tackling the political, commercial and economic issues that contribute to poverty. The public's health and well being requires us to address all these factors together - the promotion of sustainable and healthier farming alongside reducing the root causes of poverty.

Luise Hemmer Pihl
20 July 2014 11:50

Part of the pricing problem, at least here in Denmark, is that retailers calcultate their profit at the same percentage, regardless of the wholesale price of the items.

17 July 2014 10:30

I agree with Maggi. Food is cheap if you hide the real costs elsewhere or you don't make it our of real food but process it and add cheap substitutes. We used to pay a much higher % of our income on food. Why do people think they should not pay a fair price for good food ? Busy paying for more flat screen TVs and iPhones?

Flora Norris
17 July 2014 09:27

Phil - Please could you provide us with further information to investigate this incident? Ideally we would like to know the company the driver works for and the town/area in which you heard the comment. The date too would be extra helpful. You can email us this information on or if you prefer to call us you can do so on 0117 914 2411. Thanks, Flora

Phil Reddall
16 July 2014 21:58

I overheard a milk tanker driver saying he took on milk at an organic farm then visited a non-organic farm. Can this be researched and investigated please?

16 July 2014 15:54

Organic is a choice but it's one that makes sense as an investment in our personal and collective wellbeing and health. I feel quite disillusioned by the adverts at the moment about certain food being important and therefore costing less - to me, that suggests that animals somewhere are not higher welfare, and farmers somewhere are not being paid a fair price for their labour. Ultimately, we all have to take responsibility for the cost of food production and consumption, and cost is about more than the finances. If farmers were paid a fair price for their goods, and if organic was the norm and not perceived as a fad, then overall costs might come down. Or the perceived value might go up and the cost not seem quite so high. Food wastage also ramps up cost, and if we could address packaging issues which mean people can buy what they need rather than the huge family sized packs which lead to unused goods, we might have a shot at making organic accessible for more people.

Maggi Brown
16 July 2014 12:42

The price is fair Mrs Millard - and all those others who say organic food is over-priced. What we fail to add to the cost of our food are the hidden costs that we still pay for, but we don't count in our shopping bag. The costs of cleaning up after a chemical spill. The cost to the NHS for treatment of people with asthma, or allergies from chemicals, triggered by chemical residues. The costs the water companies put on us for cleaning up our water to make it fit to drink. The costs the Rivers Authority make to keep the rivers clean from farm run-off. All that is part of the food bill - but we don't see it! If we added all this together, we'd find that in fact organic food is far far cheaper! And the long-term costs just don't bear thinking about. The costs our grandchildren will have to take on to clean up after we truly realise the environmental mess modern farming practices have left us. These all cost us - but just not on the food bill as we leave the supermarket. But we still pay for it - somewhere. And if we don't our grandchildren will.

Tanny Lee
15 July 2014 19:52

I believe and I support growing organic foods. I do grow a bit for my own consumption to avoid getting more unwanted chemicals into the body. Let us start backyard organic farming for our families.

15 July 2014 18:56

I totally agree. I think the issue for me though is that a very large percentage of the population just cannot afford organic produce and/or don't have access to a garden or an allotment.Nonetheless, thanks so much for sharing this article.

Mrs G Millard
15 July 2014 18:11

Oh wouldnt it be wonderful to be able to buy lovely organic food at a fair price !

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