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Organic – Is It Worth It?

Organic – Is It Worth It?

According to one of the UK’s main farming magazines, ‘organic and conventional farmers often fail to see eye to eye’. A recent editorial accused ‘the organic lobby’ of making ‘claims that are at odds with mainstream thinking’ - for example suggesting ‘that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally produced food’. The magazine called this ‘a useful marketing ploy, but not one that is supported by the bulk of scientific opinion’. It’s sad to see a magazine claiming to respect science get the evidence so spectacularly wrong. No doubt encouraged by this nonsense, a recent letter in the magazine noted that organic food is generally more expensive than non-organic, but seemed to assume this is just a marketing ploy and accused organic farmers of ‘hostility’ towards non-organic for talking about the benefits of organic farming and food.

As organic food sales rise, so it seems do attacks on organic – just as they did between 2000 and 2008, and certainly the great debate about the price of organic food hasn’t gone away. We know that organic food is generally more expensive than non-organic, but it can be hard to explain why in a few words. For example, organic standards require free range with smaller flock sizes, lower stocking densities (the amount of space allowed for each bird, pig or cow), and cows and sheep eating mainly forage diets, all often leading to higher costs for farmers. The consequences for the consumer include far lower use of antibiotics, and organic meat with more desirable poly-unsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids, and less myristic and palmitic acid, which are potentially harmful saturated fatty acids. With dairy products organic milk contains significantly higher concentrations of total omega-3 fatty acids, including over 50% more of the nutritionally desirable Very Long Chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DPA and DHA).

Organic farmers do not use manufactured fertiliser, leading generally to lower yields and higher costs for the farmer, and the consequences for the consumer are that organic crops and processed foods (such as bread, baby food, fruit juice and wine) have more desirable antioxidants/(poly)phenolics and less potentially harmful cadmium, nitrogen and pesticide residues than their non-organic counterparts. Organic farming may impose some higher costs on the farmer, met in large part by organic consumers, but it frequently delivers lower costs for society as a whole, for example lower costs in water treatment to remove pesticides, or public benefits, like 70% more farmland wildlife.

All these differences are based on peer-reviewed meta-analyses (pulling together the results of hundreds of individual studies) – a gold standard for scientific evidence. Non-organic farming magazines and some non-organic farmers continue wrongly to see the Soil Association quoting clear scientific evidence to explain the differences in quality, and price, of organic as ‘hostility’ towards non-organic. In fact we are simply telling the truth about why organic food sometimes costs a bit more, and – crucially – why it is worth it! In other European countries, organic and non-organic coexist without the better quality of organic being seen as an attack on, or a threat to, non-organic farming. In other UK industries it is generally accepted that some products are higher quality and therefore cost more, without this being seen as ‘hostility’ - why not in farming?