Organic food is well worth paying for - for your health as well as nature

Good for the environment, and good for you too: organic vegetable boxes ready to go at Sandy Lane Farm, Oxfordshire. Photo: Sandy Lane Farm via Facebook.

Good for the environment, and good for you too: organic vegetable boxes ready to go at Sandy Lane Farm, Oxfordshire. Photo: Sandy Lane Farm via Facebook.

The way food is produced has a profound impact on its nutritional profile, according to research published in the British Journal of Nutrition. Not only is organic farming better for animal welfare, the environment and wildlife, writes Peter Melchett, but organic meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables all have tangible health benefits for the people who eat them.
The researchers have added to the growing body of science that shows the hard work organic farmers put into caring for their animals pays off in the quality of the food they produce - giving consumers as well as society real value for money.

The most often repeated criticism of organic food is that it costs more than non-organic food.

It's often accompanied by the strong implication that it's not worth paying any more for organic because it delivers no additional value to consumers.

After long and bitter disputes, the overwhelming evidence showing substantially more wildlife on organic farms, better animal welfare, almost no pesticides, less greenhouse gas emissions, more jobs and less pollution has eventually been accepted.

But all these public goods still did not justify more than a small handful of committed citizens wanting to eat organic food (so opponents of organic argued), because none of them benefit individual consumers.

This is the background to the protracted and high profile struggle over scientific studies into whether organic farming makes any difference to the quality of the food produced. The idea that consumers might be getting better quality, more nutritious food for the extra money they spend would be a serious blow to many in the non-organic farming and food industries.

'Quick - let's get our study out before the evidence'

Back in the early 2000s, a series of individual nutritional comparisons between organic and non-organic fruit, vegetables and milk were published - and all showed more beneficial nutrients in organic foods.

In response to this, and at the behest of big food businesses, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) commissioned a review of all these studies (a meta-analysis). They went ahead despite the Soil Association urging them to wait for many other studies that were due to be published over the next two or three years.

The FSA tactic worked, and in 2009, their study succeeded in finding no 'significant' differences between organic and non-organic food. The 'it is too expensive and a waste of your money' argument stood unscathed.

What the FSA failed to reveal was that the detailed report of their research actually found many consistent trends showing nutritional benefits of organic food over non-organic, and with more individual studies and more data, those differences would almost certainly be statistically significant.

Still, the FSA's work did real damage to organic sales in the UK, as was undoubtedly intended.

But now, seven years later - thanks to generous funding by the Sheepdrove Trust and the EU, and hard work by Professor Carlo Leifert and his team at Newcastle University, along with many co-authors from around the world - far better science drawing on far more studies has at last put the record straight.

Dramatic new findings for milk and meat

Following their work comparing organic and non-organic crops, this new study set out to find out whether there were any clear nutritional differences between organic dairy and meat compared to non-organic alternatives. 

The researchers have added to the growing body of science that shows the hard work organic farmers put into caring for their animals pays off in the quality of the food they produce - giving consumers as well as society real value for money.

This was the most comprehensive scientific meta-analysis - the gold standard for scientific evidence - that has ever taken place on organic meat and dairy, and drew together the results of over 200 individual research projects reported in published scientific papers.

The latest research assessed 170 individual studies on dairy products, compared to the FSA's 12, and 67 on meat compared to the FSA's 11. What the researchers found was that organic milk and meat contain around 50% higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and slightly lower concentrations of saturated fats, than non-organic products. 

Organic milk also contains 40% more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been linked to a range of health benefits including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and obesity. There is also now evidence that organic milk and dairy contain slightly higher concentrations of iron, Vitamin E and some carotenoids. 

The researchers have added to the growing body of science that shows the hard work organic farmers put into caring for their animals pays off in the quality of the food they produce - giving consumers as well as society real value for money.

When it comes to farming, what you get out is only as good as what you put in

This is not the first time that new research has found that the way food is produced makes it fundamentally different in terms of nutritional composition. In 2014, research by Newcastle University found that organic fruit and vegetables are higher in a number of potentially beneficial antioxidants, and lower in toxic heavy metals and pesticides, as well as lower in nitrogen, which is linked to an increase in certain cancers. 

That analysis presented strong evidence that switching to food produced using organic standards can lead to increased intake of nutritionally desirable antioxidants, without increased calories, as well as reduced intake of potentially harmful cadmium and pesticides.

All this research is simply confirming what people who buy organic have always thought was true: what you get out is only as good as what you put in. Organic farming methods and standards require all organic farmers to adopt techniques that guarantee what we now know are nutritionally different foods.

The fact that is so distressing to industrial farming and food manufacturers is that the quality of food we produce is directly affected by how we choose to grow crops and raise farm animals. 

In clover: better for nutrition, the environment, and animal welfare

Organic cows and sheep eat grass and clover, and lots of it - organic standards require that at least 60% of an animal's diet must come from forage (grazing or eating hay or silage). Clover is the key organic alternative to nitrogen-based fertilisers, and because of this all organic farmers grow diverse mixes of red and white clover and other legumes in their fields, to feed animals and fix Nitrogen.

Clovers, or similar legumes like peas, beans or lucerne (alfalfa), fix Nitrogen from the air naturally into the soil. As organic farming involves a much lower level of Nitrogen inputs, uses slow-release, plant-based Nitrogen, and avoids almost all pesticides, it is significantly less polluting than non-organic farming.

This research shows that the combined clover / grass diet used by organic farmers plays a large part in explaining the nutritional differences in milk and meat. That left one last argument for the anti-organic lobby - the claim it is all about feeding grass, not organic standards. This hardly explains differences in organic grains, fruits and vegetables, and it ignores three vital facts.

First, organic standards require a diet high in grass and clover, and extensive grazing periods. Organic animals are outside as much as possible and have to be free range. For other farmers this is optional, for organic the standards have to be kept to, and are subject to annual, independent inspections.

Second, organic farmers tend to use slower maturing and lower yielding animals, better suited to lower input systems. The new research suggests that as well as a diet high in clover and grass, lower-input systems and traditional or lower-yielding breeds also play a part in nutritional composition. On the other hand, earlier research has indicated that more intensive systems, such as high milking frequency and/or robotic milking, have a negative effect on milk quality.

Third, and crucially, the only way a consumer can be sure they are buying meat, milk, cream, cheese or butter from an animal that has been fed a mainly clover / grass diet is to look for the organic label. Organic standards are defined in law, apply over most of the world, and are backed by independent inspection and certification.

What about the impact on human health?

In these latest papers the researchers are clear that now clear nutritional differences have been established, the next step is to investigate whether organic diets have any impact on human health. They are also clear that very little scientific evidence is available as yet.

Research to identify such effects is not easy, but there is some limited evidence on the effects of eating organic food on animal and human health. Two relatively new scientific human cohort studies (where the health of large groups of people eating organic food is compared to those eating non-organic) have been published.

These found that eating organic vegetables or dairy products was associated with positive health impacts including a 58% reduced risk of genital deformation in boys and a 21% lower risk of pre-eclampsia during pregnancy. An earlier human cohort study in the Netherlands showed that switching to organic milk consumption reduced the risk of eczema in children younger than 2 years by 36%.

For now, the new research on the nutritional differences in organic dairy and meat, together with Newcastle University's earlier research on organic crops, provides all the evidence we need on the across the board benefits of organic food and farming.

And if organic costs a bit more, remember: not only is it good for the environment, wildlife and farm animals; organic food also delivers more essential and beneficial nutrients to those who eat it.



The studies:

Peter Melchett
has been Policy Director of the Soil Association, the UK's main organic food and farming organisation, working on campaigns, standards and policy, since 2001. He runs an 890-acre organic farm in Norfolk, with beef cattle and arable seed crops.

He is a member of the BBC's Rural Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Government's Rural Climate Change Forum and Organic Action Plan Group, and the Department of Education's School Lunches Review Panel. He received an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in 2013, was on the Board of the EU's £12m ‘Quality Low Input Food' research project, and is a Board member for two EU research projects on low input crops and livestock.

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