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An article in The Guardian says that “Organic food and drink sales rise to record levels in the UK”. That is good news but there is still scepticism about the value of organic food. Some say it is too expensive others argue that it is a con. The thing that finally convinced me it was the only food i wanted to eat was finding the information about pesticide residues in food. That was in the early 1990s when the government stipulated a ‘safe’ minimum amount of residue for each common pesticide and fungicide. For many years two government scientists, McCance and Widdowson, produced a report of the amounts of each pesticide found in fruit and veg that they bought from supermarkets. There were items that exceeded the allowed maximum and this was included in a yearly report.
What was not recognised was that most crops received multiple applications of different products. There might be applications of fungicide, then pesticides for insect infestation followed by weed killers. There was never any limit for cocktails of chemicals.
Then in a drought year we heard about high levels of chemicals in carrots and the government told us to wash them. The problem is that modern pesticides are systemic. That means they are taken up into the cells of the plant and cannot be removed, even by fancy veg washing products. And peeling does not help as the chemicals are in every cell.
Those of you of a certain age will remember crops of corn slowly turning a golden colour in late summer and then the harvest that followed when the weather was right. Now, cereal crops and potatoes are ‘sprayed off’ so that harvest can happen at set times. On corn they use weed killer and acid on potatoes to kill the tops.
Modern farms are part of the supermarket supply chain and if they are contracted to supply 100 tonnes of potatoes in the first week of September that is what they must do or lose the contract. It is supermarkets who control agriculture as it must be part of a production line to ensure continuous supply. There is no such thing as seasonal fruit and vegetables, we want everything all the time and we it now!
There have been arguments about organic produce being more nutritious. An idea fiercely contested by conventional farming. A study by Newcastle University found that organic milk was higher in nutrients. Such research is not so common now as universities rely on external funding.
Other groups round the world looked at simple indicators of quality in veg like the Brix reading. Although this is a simple test that anybody can do it does provide an overall indication of quality. I have a brix refractometer bought several years ago when experimenting with different growing techniques and did a random test on carrots last week. Comparing a standard carrot from Waitrose with one in our box from Riverford Organics. The results are clear
It is not all about pesticides as non-organic, or factory farming, methods also have an effect on soil, our greatest natural asset. Since the 1940s the emphasis has been on increasing production through the widespread use of chemical fertilisers. While the use of N-P-K (Nitrogen Phosphorous Potassium or Potash) does give rapid growth, it produces plants that do not have the strength to withstand insect attacks. Previously farms mixed and crops on land manured by the animals. That was a natural cycle and produced rich healthy soil.
A somewhat ironic side effect of not applying organic matters to soil such as compost or manure is that it results in thin soils which are easily eroded. Farmers use high cost inputs to get bigger, quicker crops and lose their soil in the process.
There is growing evidence that the strongest, healthiest and most nutritious crops are grown on good quality soils that provide the whole spectrum of minerals and nutrients. That is not surprising! The fact that the nutritional value of food has declined since the 1940s is overlooked see this report from 2002 And this one from McCance and Widdowson
This is why I decided to buy organic food nearly 30 years ago. Some will argue it is an expensive luxury but now the price of organic veg is the same or only slightly more than the other stuff. In the end it is your choice but remember one thing, your body is you, if you look after it and feed it well you will feel the benefits. Like I said to a man one day if you bought a top of the range luxury car would you put paraffin (kerosene) in the tank to save money. He told me not to be so stupid, so, I asked him why did he put the cheapest possible food down his throat. My only conclusion was that he valued his new car more than he valued himself.
The answer? Grow you own and if not have it delievered to your door. We use Riverford as we no longer able to grow much of our own food.
Over the 20 years or so that I have been an organic grower I have been asked why organic; what is so special about organic gardening. There is not an easy one sentence answer but I will try to explain.
The first answer is that I took a decision about what I wanted to eat and that ruled out food with pesticide residues. Although the government assure us it is perfectly safe to eat food grown with pesticides there is growing evidence that the daily ingestion of small amounts of chemical poisons has an effect. A study at the University of Rochester showed that a combination of two common pesticides caused effects like Parkinson’s disease when fed to lab mice at residue levels. There is other research but it is always challenged by the agrochemical companies and often suppressed by governments but it can be found.
Is organic food better for you? My answer is definitely! The University of Newcastle proved that organic milk contained higher levels of essential nutrients. There have been other reports saying the same but the UK government still says there is no difference.
In terms of sustainability organic has to be the only way to grow food. Conventional growing relies on big inputs of chemically produced fertilizer and pesticides. That means using oil and gas to produce the artificial aids, or props, that underpin modern agriculture. Even the experts are saying we are running out of oil so we need to find other ways to grow food. Add to that the huge amounts of CO2 produced by using fossil fuels and it is obvious that we cannot continue as we are.
The other big issue is food security. We have become used to a lifestyle that includes being able to buy any food at any time of the year. That means that we not only import food from around the world, often by air, but that we depend on an infrastructure of mass storage and delivery. There is increasing awareness about food miles and the costly supermarket distribution systems but there is no wringing of hands and no alternative suggested apart from the UK eat local idea which does not address the other issues of chemically produced food. And even local food can travel a long distance before it reaches the supermarket shelves.
The current system has become so accepted and so powerful that it has erased memories of how things used to be. Within a generation we have stopped eating seasonal produce and become hooked on the goodies in the over lit enticing atmosphere of the local superstore. We CAN produce a lot more food in the UK but it means small changes to our lifestyles.
So, that is why I choose to grow organic food and why I like buy it in preference to the other stuff. It is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ but just common sense. I would also argue that anybody remotely interested in sustainability should be doing the same. I would argue that it is no use using low energy light bulbs but at the same time supporting a food system that is wasteful and unsustainable.
More confusing health advice. Now it is claimed that eating 5 a day does not significantly reduce the risk of cancer. According to the BBC.
Eating more fruit and vegetables has only a modest effect on protecting against cancer, a study into the link between diet and disease has found.
The study of 500,000 Europeans joins a growing body of evidence undermining the high hopes that pushing “five-a-day” might slash Western cancer rates.
The international team of researchers estimates only around 2.5% of cancers could be averted by increasing intake.
But experts stress eating fruit and vegetables is still key to good health.
It would be good if the research differentiated between eating organic and non-organic fruit and veg. Would they find that the higher levels of vitamins and minerals in organic produce were more beneficial? Would they find that the absence of pesticides residues helped? I doubt if that research will ever happen as it is far too much of a political hot potato ( sorry!) And even if it did the agrochemical companies would be quick to rubbish the finds and would lobby to have the research discredited.
What these scientific studies often ignore is the complexity of diet and its effects on health. It could be that 5 a day is not enough, maybe it should be 7 or 9 a day. It would also be good to compare the cancer rates between vegetarians and meat eaters!
Another important fact is that the nutrient content of fresh produce has decreased by up to 70% over the last 60 years.
There are just too many factors involved to write off the 5 a day campaign. It would help if journalists did not always indulge in such sensational headlines and tried to present a more balanced view that informed rather than shocked!
One of the main concerns about food production in the US at the moment is safety. With outbreaks of salmonella and ecoli becoming more common there have been some drastic ideas to improve food quality.
A few months back came the news that all weeds and wildlife needed to be eliminated from fields growing food to create a sterile site. Then the film Food Inc was released which suggested that the problem comes from within. Huge feedlots raising cattle in conditions that would shock most consumers were cited as one major sources of pollution of the food chain. What this all leads too is the notion that growing in soil, or dirt as the Americans call it, is no longer healthy.
There have been a string of wacky ideas for vertical farms, integrated fish and vegetable farms (where fish poo is used to feed the veg) and now theres is an assertion that the only way to go is large scale aeroponics – a hydroponic system where nutrient rich water is sprayed on the bare roots of plants.
There is no doubt that ‘aero’ works and produces spectacular growth and can it be much more sterile that soil but that misses some crucial issues. As I have said many times hydroponic systems can never be sustainable because they totally rely on artificial fertilisers. Add into that the energy required to manufacture the growing systems, build the buildings and generally run the systems and there is no way that these can be sustainable food systems.
So what is driving this insistent rush to even more industrial, factory farming? It is certainly a reaction to the dire problems faced by the US food industry (they are not alone as similar problems exist in many other ‘developed’ countries) it is also fuelled by a growing sense of unease about how we are going to feed ever expanding populations.
The main beneficiaries of a move to hydroponics have to the equipment manufacturers and, most of all, our old friends the agrochemical companies who would supply the vast amounts of fertilisers and pesticides that hydro systems would need.
Maybe the best course of action is to literally clean up US farming and get back to basics. We desperately need to start farming and growing in ways that best use the soil we have. That has to recognise that soil is, without doubt, our biggest asset and one that we ignore or degrade at our peril. And the best way to manage soil is by growing organically. It really is that simple.