Loud voices dismiss organic food as nothing more than a trendy 21st-century lifestyle choice for the neurotic rich, but this is a phony argument. There’s nothing new or modish about organics – until the 1950s, all the food we ate was organically produced. It’s organic food that should be considered “normal”, not the upstart, factory-farmed, agrochemical stuff that’s only been on our shelves for a few decades. And the reasons for eating organic food, and supporting organic farmers and growers, are becoming more compelling, not less.
If health – your own or that of your family – is your main concern, then perhaps the biggest motivation is limiting your exposure to the residues of pesticides that are routinely found in non-organic food. Pesticides are poisons designed to kill things. Why eat them if you don’t have to?
Of the “conventional” non-organic food we eat, 46% contains residues of one or more pesticide, and levels are going up dramatically, not down: in 2003 the equivalent figure was just 25%. Consumers are assured that farmers and growers take human health protection very seriously, but the truth of the matter is that the National Farmers Union and chemical companies militantly defend their pesticide armoury in the face of any government attempt to restrict it.
Non-organic farmers have at their disposal an arsenal of over 320 pesticides and they use them routinely. Carbendazim is one of the most commonly applied ones (on apples, cucumber, grapes, pre-packed salads, spinach and more) even though evidence links it with developmental damage to mammals that could lead to cancers, developmental problems and birth defects.
The regulatory bodies responsible for public health parrot the chemical industry line that we should not be the slightest bit alarmed that our food routinely contains residues of toxic pesticides because they are all below “safe limits”, but this comforting reassurance looks thinner by the moment. Earlier this year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency – classified glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and the world’s most widely used herbicide, as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
By contrast, pesticide residues are hardly ever found in organic food, and only through accidental contamination with non-organic agriculture, because organic farmers aim for zero pesticide use. The Soil Association, the UK’s leading organic certification body, does allow eight pesticides in organic farming, but these can only be used when every other non-chemical approach has failed, and as part of an approved annual plan that sets out proposals to ensure that the pesticide will not have to be used in future.
Avoiding dodgy, controversial food additives is another persuasive health reason for eating organic. Manufacturers of organic food can use just 45 of the thousands permitted in Europe. Only additives derived from natural sources, such as lecithin and citric acid, are allowed in organic food and no artificial colourings or flavourings are permitted.
This restricted list of organic additives has to be good news for our health. The Danish National Food Institute has recently developed a more reliable mathematical method for calculating the likely “additive” or “cocktail” effect of chemicals, whether it be from pesticides or food additives. Its research suggests that even tiny doses of chemicals in combination can have more significant negative effects on our health than was previously thought. This underlines why limiting your exposure to such substances (by eating organic, for example), is a wise move. Of particular concern are the endocrine disrupting chemicals found in food additives and pesticides, which can have unexpected and potent negative effects on health, even at very low doses.
When you choose organic food, you also get a cast-iron guarantee that your food is GM-free because organically reared livestock cannot be fed on genetically modified feed.
Evidence is emerging to suggest that GM crops increase the use of pesticides, produce super-weeds and super-pests, and compromise animal, and possibly human, health. Looking beyond human health issues, there are other powerful reasons for choosing organic. If animal welfare is a prime concern for you, it’s worth noting that Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), the world’s leading animal welfare organisation, “strongly supports organic as the best form of humane and sustainable agriculture”. CIWF rates organic standards for raising livestock as the best in operation. Organic farmers only treat their animals with antibiotics when they show clinical signs of illness; they are not allowed to use them to promote growth or keep a lid on the diseases endemic to intensive farming. Conventional farmers, on the other hand, often use antibiotics preventively to treat stressed, disease-prone animals kept in factory farms. Concern is mounting that the overuse of antibiotics in farming – farm animals account for almost two-thirds of all antibiotics used in the EU – is compromising the efficacy of these vital drugs in both animal and human medicine, encouraging the emergence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
Organic farming methods also beat non-organic hands-down when it comes to encouraging and protecting wildlife. Over the last 50 years the UK has witnessed a steep decline in wildlife, in large part a consequence of the 31,000 tonnes of chemicals that are sprayed on Britain every year, impoverishing soil fertility and harming bees and other pollinators. Because organic farming methods are more benign, wildlife is 50% more abundant on organic farms, organic farms support on average 75% more plant species, and have 50% more species of pollinators than non-organic farms.
Can you afford organic? The annoying thing is that because the true environmental and health costs of chemical agriculture (pollution, soil erosion, ill health, animal suffering and more) are “externalised” , that is, not accounted for up front in calculations of the “efficiency” of our existing food system, organic food generally costs more. But choosing organic whenever you can nevertheless makes good sense. After only 75 years, the industrial agriculture food system that we have been locked into is patently cracking at the seams. It is becoming ever more obvious that it is structurally incapable of delivering safe, healthy food, treating animals humanely, or taking care of the environment. Organics is the only organised, coherent, global alternative to this failed industrial food experiment.