The Which? report
Roger Mortlock - 24 February 2011
It's funny the things that actually drive you bonkers. Bonkers enough even to start the blog you've been putting off starting for ages.
This week's organic curve ball comes from Gardening Which? whose shockingly unscientific piece of research has damned organic gardening in an instant based on taste tests from two men and dog in the Cotswolds (OK, I am kidding, but only a little). So Gardening Which? have by default supported the use of chemicals in domestic gardens that kill bees, could seriously harm pets and are polluting our water supply - and yet I haven't seen Which? highlight that in their gardening magazine recently.
Well here's my own very unscientific survey. In over 20 years of growing food with neighbours and in a range of allotments, I have never come across anyone who switches to organic gardening who doesn't immediately see the benefits. Let's park the taste test for a moment (though I bet my mortgage that a broader survey would come up with the opposite result), the fact is that why would you put chemicals on the food you are growing if you don't have to? Growing fruit and veg in your garden organically is not a niche activity - it's gone mainstream. Gardening Which? would do better to avoid the cheap headlines that come from bashing organic and instead better support those thousands of gardeners who are trying to do the right thing.
The redoubtable Shelia McKechnie who led Which? and the Consumers Association for many years remains one of my real heroes. She described herself as a paid up member of 'the awkward squad' and right up to her death in 2004 she championed citizen interests in the marketplace. As a result, I've been a longtime fan of Which?; for Shelia's vision of it, rather than its reviews of washing machines. The key to their success has been good research - and understanding what acting in the public interest is really about. Judging from the online response of their own readers, it looks like they have got this one wrong.
Roger Mortlock is Deputy Director of the Soil Association. His previous career - which included stints in education, public health and even a spell in the arts - could be described as eclectic; if 'eclectic' is latin for 'all over the place'. His defence is that the only thing that links it all together is a commitment to positive health and well-being; something right at the heart of the founding vision of the Soil Association. He works on campaigns, policy and our programmes, including chairing the Food for Life Partnership.
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25 February 2011 18:51
Great to see you blogging Roger, and surprised at Which? but agree with Mark Haughton-Bown, too vague. Shame.
25 February 2011 18:13
A copy of my letter to Gardening Which. I worked for Garden Organic for many years.
Dear Gardening Which Team
I find the 'Organic vs non-organic' article quite perplexing. You seem to feel that the ''non-organic' produce was more successful. Yet only the tomatoes were judged to be better, because they were sweeter and more flavourful. The other two vegetables showed little difference. But what did you expect? The modern palate has been trained to prefer sweet, As one who has taken part in taste tests on many occasions I know that organic produce usually has stronger, richer flavours. This is not always nicer of course! I can remember very strong tasting organic carrots that compared unfavourably with sweet (but very watery) non-organic ones.
Nonetheless, you chose to see that the non-organic veg were tastier - rather a sweeping statement under the circumstances.
And, because the potatoes had higher Vit C levels you extrapolated this to encompass all non-organic veg being 'more nutritious'. Another sweeping statement.
Your final verdict would leave many readers muddled. You state that the trial seems to indicate better taste and higher levels of nutrition in non-organic produce. Yet you then start to list a whole range of differences in growing methods. This is not helpful.
But what about the other part of the discussion? What about the chemical cocktail that humans are ingesting when sprayed crops are consumed. There are no tests available to judge whether this is harmful, even if each individual chemical is 'unlikely to pose any health risks'. The mixture is impossible to test.
What about the environmental issues involved in organic horticulture? What about soil becoming lifeless, bird populations plummeting, waterways polluted? Non-organic farms (and gardens)are more likely to be responsible for this damage than organic ones.
The organic movement doesn't need inadequate articles such as this, from a magazine usually known for its rigour and analytical skill. Start another trial. Let it run for five years minimum. Use several sites around the country. Investigate the environmental issues as well as taste, yield and nutrition. Then you might have data useful to your readers.
Mrs Maggi Brown
25 February 2011 11:54
Mark, good point. Rest assured though that we’ve been fighting back with science as well as rhetoric!
If you are able to have a look at the article produced by Which, then it becomes very clear, very quickly that this study is completely unscientific.
Our press comment does not go into full details of all the scientific arguments – in the media ‘game’, simple, strong reactions which don’t confuse the public have to come first. Detailed scientific arguments are often completely lost.
A few problems with the ‘study’. I put the term in inverted commas because this cannot be classed in any way as a scientific study. Which? themselves freely admit that this was a tiny sample and absolute conclusions cannot be drawn from this.
Organic farming requires adherence to strict standards, and therefore can be properly measured, as the hundreds of studies which show the multiple benefits of organic farming in areas such as biodiversity, climate change and nutrition. Organic gardening has no such standards, therefore we have not idea what Which were actually testing in their ‘study’.
Basic school science will tell you that we can’t draw conclusions about an entire system of gardening, in which hundreds of different types of fruit and vegetables of thousands of varieties are being produced - from a few organic grow bags and half an allotment.
The only items which were tested for taste were tomatoes. Some professional tasters did test them (we don’t know how many), along with around 100 people at a garden show. The main reason people preferred them were that they were sweeter. Research has shown that higher levels sweetness can mean that fruit and vegetables can contain fewer beneficial nutrients.
Of the three vegetables which were grown by Which?, only two were tested for one nutrient each – vitamin C in potatoes (we don’t know how many), and ten pieces of broccoli were tested for antioxidant levels. We don’t even know how much lower the antioxidant levels were in the organic produce in this tiny sample.
There is a growing body of research that shows organic food can be more nutritious for you and your family. The UK FSA are, in our view, wrong. The French equivalent, which says there are real differences in the nutrition between organic and non organic food are right.
The UK FSA, after months of delay, released the data their study was based on and it is now being analysed by other scientists - the strength of science is that data can be looked at by more than one set of scientists, new evidence can be gathered (recently scientists found organic strawberries to have more beneficial nutrients than non-organic), and so conclusions do change.
High levels of readily available nitrogen (when artificial fertiliser is applied to plants, as in the Which study) tend to reduce nutrient density and sometimes make crops more vulnerable to pests. Nutrients in compost, manure, cover crops and other soil amendments tend to be released more slowly in step with crop needs, and often help to boost crop nutrient levels and the efficiency of nutrient uptake by the plants.
The Which study was published on the same day as yet another study into the dangers of pesticides was produced. This time, fungicides affecting male fertility. This highlights how pesticides, which were previously thought to be safe, are causing unforeseen problems, once science catches up.
The pesticides which were used by Which have already been proved to cause problems. Around £120million is spent annually on water treatment to remove pesticides from our drinking water.
Metaldehyde is sold with a strongly-worded official health warning: “Since this product contains metaldehyde, which can kill if eaten, it must be kept away from children and pets.” Sytematic insecticides have been strongly implicated in the large scale decline in the bee population.
Clio Turton, Soil Association press office manager
25 February 2011 11:21
Our comms & campaigns director Molly Conisbee did provide a live comment on BBC Radio Scotland news but didn't make the discussion. We also got our response in a number of national papers, our head of policy, Emma Hockridge, took part in a discussion BBC Radio 5 Live Drive Time and our Royal Patron Prince Charles had his say in support of organic in the Telegraph yesterday - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/8343227/Prince-Charles-says-organic-allotments-can-save-the-environment.html
24 February 2011 20:34
Great to see you starting a blog Roger, but you really need to technically demolish this rather than issue vague condemnations of the implications.
I have not seen the report but doubt they were comparing like with like.
24 February 2011 19:27
Here here, Roger. A pox on gardeners who chuck chemicals all over their gardens and turn a blind eye to their effects. Likewise spineless magazines who are afraid of anything other than the staus quo and who sell their integrity weekly for the price of an ad. May their beloved organo phosphate insecticides reign down on them all. Hope they all get great big bunions too .
24 February 2011 14:16
I totally agree. Radio Scotland had a phone in on the subject this morning and it's a pity there was no Soil Association spokesman taking part. The whole "taste" thing is so subjective and as you say, people conveniently ignore the hidden but very real costs of much conventional production. As Soil Association certified producers since the 1980's we were horrified at the way the press seemed to fall with delight on this survey. It seems to have been conducted in a strange way and I'd like to know more about it. We called the Edinburgh office of SA and suggested that they ask Radio Scotland to keep them informed of any similar phone in programmes so that they can take part.
Anna Louise Batchelor
24 February 2011 12:00
Good comment and good to see you blogging.
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