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‘Natural’ isn’t better

It's time to dish some dirt on the myths about organic food.

Geoffrey Hollis

Topics Politics

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The Emperor was much admired by his courtiers when he paraded in his new clothes. They had all been taken in by the scheming tailors who claimed that their clothes were of such fine quality that only those with the most refined taste could appreciate them.

Like all good fairy tales, this one tells us much about the frailty of human nature, particularly our readiness to believe the most fantastic claims if the marketing is good enough.

A modern example – which also happens to involve a Royal – is organic food, sales of which are expanding rapidly despite being much more expensive than conventionally produced food. Its success must be partly down to Prince Charles, who is a strong and vocal supporter. Yet organic food appears no different from ordinary food, and tastes no different when put through properly controlled blind trials.

Of course, there is a strident lobby trying to persuade us that organic food must be better for us because it is produced without artificial chemicals. But this common claim is completely untrue. Organic farmers can and do use manmade chemicals to fertilise their crops and protect them from pests and diseases.

And although the organic lobby makes much of the tiny residues of pesticides found in some conventional food, a government test of baby foods found organic brands to contain residues while conventional ones did not. In any case, the real risks from food lie not in chemical but in biological contaminants that can lead to food poisoning – and these affect all types of food equally.

When challenged about their spurious claims of superior safety, the organic lobby has fallen back to claiming that their products are more friendly to the environment. But there is very little convincing evidence that organic rules guarantee a better environment at farm level. There is plenty of evidence, though, that organic yields are much lower, which means that more land is needed to provide the same amount of food – an environmental loss.

It has been calculated that if we went fully organic in this country then an area equivalent to Wales would have to be ploughed up to give the same level of production. This won’t happen, of course, because most of the organic food we consume is imported, requiring excess food miles in the process. And domestic organic food is often produced in damaging ways: for example, all organic sugar produced in this country comes from one plant to avoid ‘contamination’, which means that lorries have to waste fuel bringing supplies from all over the country instead of just taking them to their local refinery.

The success of organic food is entirely down to heavy marketing using unscrupulous methods. Myself and others have complained successfully to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about a string of untruthful campaigns run by the Soil Association and supermarkets promoting organic food. The ASA has been forced to issue a code of guidance for organic food, which prohibits all the main claims made on its behalf: that is uses no chemicals, tastes better, is welfare friendly or environmentally friendly.

The Emperor’s folly was finally revealed by a small boy, who pointed out that he had no clothes on at all. The role of the small boy in the case of organic food has been played by Sir John Krebs, head of the Foods Standards Agency (FSA). Much to the fury of the organic lobby, the Agency has issued statements that it knows of no evidence to support claims that organic food is safer or more nutritious.

The FSA’s motive was honourable – it did not like the effect on ordinary people of the lies spread by the organic lobby. The Department of Health is trying to get us to eat more fruit and vegetables, but this message is surely being undermined by the claims that conventional produce is less safe than organic food.

The FSA’s stance has infuriated one courtier in particular – environment minister Michael Meacher. He is getting crosser and crosser with Sir John for failing to recant (1). This is an amazing state of affairs. Here we see a Labour minister pressing a supposedly independent agency to support an expensive class of foods that is bought chiefly by well-heeled middle class shoppers.

‘You don’t see the Emperor has beautiful clothes – then you must look harder!’, says Meacher. We should all hope that Sir John does not give in to this ill-advised bullying. And let us also hope that Tony Blair’s next ministerial reshuffle sees Mr Meacher replaced, so that he can no longer undermine the public’s confidence in its food.

Geoffrey Hollis is a commentator on environmental issues, and non-executive director of a Primary Care Trust. He was formerly an under-secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture.

Read on:

Pests about pesticides, by Jan Bowman

Food science, by Tom Sanders

(1) See Meacher rages at inaction on organic food, Guardian, 23 May 2003

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Topics Politics

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