Organic food and unhealthy snobbery

People don’t eat organic for its nutrients, but because they want to distinguish themselves from the junk-scoffing hordes.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Last week, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) published two reviews comparing the nutritional content and health benefits of organic and conventionally grown foods. It found that organic food was not significantly healthier than normal grub. For many people the results confirmed that organic food is a con; for pro-organic campaigners it was simply evidence of a ‘cancerous conspiracy’ in government circles in favour of conventional farming and industrialised food.

But the fad for organic foods has never been about vitamins and minerals, and eating more healthily. Rather, consuming organic is about adopting a mystical and reverent attitude towards nature, and a dim view of hoi polloi.

The FSA’s reviews selected 53 previously published, good-quality research papers on organic food. The FSA’s final report found that for 20 out of the 23 main nutrients examined in these research papers, there was no statistically significant difference between organic and conventional crops. Even where there was evidence of a difference, the reviewers found no evidence that these differences would have any noticeable effect on health. The lead author, Dr Alan Dangour, said: ‘Looking at all of the studies published in the last 50 years, we have concluded that there’s no good evidence that consumption of organic food is beneficial to health based on the nutrient content.’

The FSA report had the pro-organic lobby spitting feathers. In the Daily Mail, food writer Joanna Blythman bemoaned the fact that ‘despite its obvious benefits for our health and for the environment, organic food continues to be denigrated by the political and corporate establishment in Britain’. Lord Melchett, policy director of the pro-organic Soil Association, told The Sunday Times: ‘I’m angry and perplexed. We genuinely expected the FSA to report the facts. That’s their job. I’m deeply disappointed that they haven’t. I think it’s outrageous.’

Carlo Leifert, professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University, who is currently carrying out research into organic food, funded by the European Union, said: ‘They have ignored all the recent literature as well as new primary research which shows the health advantages of organic… They admit in their own research that some compounds are 50 per cent higher in organic. How can you call that a non-significance?’

Yet the simplistic claim that organic is always more nutritious than conventional food was always likely to be misleading. Food is a natural product and the nutritional content of different foods, and even of different varieties of the same food, will vary for a number of reasons, including: freshness, the way the food is cooked, the soil conditions it is grown in, the amount of sunlight and water crops have received, and so on. The differences created by these things are likely to be greater than any differences brought about by using an organic or non-organic system of production. Indeed, given that farmers vary in their ability and commitment, even two ‘organic’ farms could be quite different from one another. How on earth could any study control for such a multitude of variables?

If crops vary in how much nutrition they contain, then people also vary in how much fruit and veg they eat. Fretting about the exact quantity of beta-carotene in your food is irrelevant if you are a vegetable-phobic salad-dodger. On the other hand, if you eat the government’s recommended five portions of fruit and veg per day (a hefty 400 grams), then the conventional-versus-organic differences will be irrelevant.

Furthermore, some crops are just really good sources of specific nutrients. If you really want to get lots of beta-carotene, eat plenty of carrots (the clue is in the name). Organic milk may contain more omega-3 fatty acids than regular milk, but neither of them is a particularly good source of those acids – if you really want omega-3 fatty acids you should be consuming lots of oily fish.

The other objection raised by organic food fans is that the FSA reviews did not look at pesticide residues. The UK Pesticide Residues Committee (PRC) reports regularly on this. In its most recent report, the PRC examined 1,518 samples of a wide variety of foods, including some organic foods, and found that 33 were over the maximum permitted level for residues (however, it should be noted that these ‘maximum levels’ are well below those where any toxic effect in humans would be expected). Also, plants themselves contain a great many natural pesticides. Our intake of manmade chemicals is small, almost certainly of no health concern, and it pales in comparison with the natural chemicals we consume.

As Professor Ottoline Leyser of York University says: ‘People think that the more natural something is, the better it is for them. That is simply not the case. In fact, it is the opposite that is true: the closer a plant is to its natural state, the more likely it is that it will poison you. Naturally, plants do not want to be eaten, so we have spent 10,000 years developing agriculture and breeding out harmful traits from crops. “Natural agriculture” is a contradiction in terms.’

As a method of food production, organic is inefficient in its use of labour and land; there are severe limits to how much food can be produced by the organic method. And as we heard last week, the health benefits of organic food are either very small or non-existent. Also, the environmental benefits of not using artificial fertiliser on crops are tiny compared with the amount of greenhouse gas emitted by transporting food (most of Britain’s organic food is shipped in from abroad and transported from shop to home by car).

So if it’s not more healthy or time- and labour-efficient, what is the continuing attraction of organic food for certain people? The really important thing is that organic sounds more ‘natural’. Eating organic is a way of defining oneself as natural, good, caring, different to the McDonald’s-scoffing masses. As Mark Smith, writing in the Herald (Glasgow) today, puts it: ‘There is something more intuitive going on when I choose organic, something that’s important but hard to pin down in a report full of appendices and flow charts: organic food feels closer to the source, the beginning, the start of things.’ The real desire is to be somehow close to the soil, to Mother Nature, to Gaia, or whatever you want to call it.

Which is weird, because Nature is about as cuddly as a piranha. It is society’s capacity to distance itself from Nature that has enabled us to live longer and fuller lives. Not for nothing did the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson describe nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’.

The irrational, seemingly instinctive desire to get close to ‘the source’ has been a recurring theme of the organic movement from its inception in the 1920s. The rise of the pro-organic lobby in the early twentieth century was a reaction against industrial society, led by precisely the kind of people – aristocrats, vicars and so on – who found their positions of authority and respect undermined by the modern world. No wonder Prince Charles and Lord Melchett are such fans of organic food; they are the heirs to Lady Eve Balfour, the founder of the Soil Association. The fact that these aristocratic, anti-modern views have now become quite mainstream is a symptom of the collapse of belief in both capitalist society (amongst the ruling classes) and in any progressive alternative (amongst the working classes). The end result is that the middle classes – the dregs of political life – now have a disproportionately influential role in Britain, which means that their fads and outlook can dominate public debate.

The organic lobby’s rejection of all things manmade also extends to rejecting other people, too. Many of those who choose organic seem to have a holier-than-thou desire to distance their own caring view of the world from the ravenous masses who are deemed to consume without caring about the consequences. AA Gill, food critic for The Sunday Times, summed this up well: ‘What I really mind about all this is that organic is making food into a class issue. Organic brings back this pre-war system of posh, politically correct food for Notting Hill people, and filthy, rubbish chemical food for filthy, rubbish chemical people. Either you are a nice organic person or you are a filthy, overweight McDonald’s person. I find that really obscene. It has very little to do with food and a lot to do with weird snobbery.’

The central idea of organic agriculture is the importance of spreading crap on fields. It seems it’s also about spreading crap everywhere else, too.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons called Jamie Oliver’s ‘school meals revolution’ a dog’s dinner. Elsewhere he revealed the truth about organic food. Justine Brian celebrated mass food production. Patrick West analysed our age of celebrity chefs. James Panton explained why he’s got a beef with going vegetarian. Or read more at spiked issue Food.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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