As a doctor, I like to see hard and fast evidence that something is better before I recommend it, and I haven’t seen that much evidence behind “organic”. Yet it should be better for our health. Organic agricultural practices mean avoiding chemical fertilisers – using instead crop rotation and natural nitrogen sources like clover, composted manure and seaweed. Pesticides are severely restricted and routine use of antibiotics and other drugs is banned. That means we should be ingesting far fewer chemicals ourselves.
A recent study has shown that non-organic food is more likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bugs than organic food (which presumably hasn’t been exposed to such high levels of antibiotics). Antibiotic resistance is an increasing problem facing us all – we may lose some of our ability to treat serious infections.
A study from Newcastle University has suggested that organic food contains 19 to 69% more antioxidants (important for health) than non-organic food, and lower levels of toxic metals and pesticides. They said that "‘the increased levels of antioxidants are equivalent to one to two of our recommended five portions of fruits and vegetables a day."
The researchers also found much higher levels of cadmium, a toxic metal, in conventional crops. Pesticide residues were four times as likely to be found on conventional crops than on organic food. Cadmium levels can build up in the body over time and pesticide limits are set individually, not for the multiple chemicals in use on many, non-organically produced crops.
Sounds pretty convincing, but critics point out that these differences between non-organic and organic produce have not be proven to influence health. What’s more, an earlier review by the Food Standards Agency found no benefit to eating organic – though it reviewed just 11 relevant studies of variable quality, so more research is needed.
The Newcastle study also showed that organic milk has a better ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 than conventional milk – and that reason alone may be worth switching to organic for. We should all increase our omega 3 intake as a deficiency is linked to depression and addictive disorders. Organic meat may have higher levels of omega 3 too, as the animals are free-range and more often grass-fed rather than grain-fed. Meat from grass-fed animals also appears to have higher vitamin and antioxidant levels.
So the evidence is a bit sparse and a lot of the conclusions are contradictory, or non-committal at best. But then the range of so-called organic products will vary widely – and the benefits of such products are therefore more difficult to ascertain. Just having ‘organic’ on the label is not necessarily an indication of a good all-round product.
However, if farmers and manufacturers adhere to the principles of organic farming we can be pretty sure that we are supporting the environment and community by buying organic – which is another big benefit. Even the critics of the studies showing health benefits to organic food production admit that such methods of farming do help to address the significant problem in the UK of soil degradation and excess fertiliser polluting rivers.
Organic practices are important in maintaining hedgerows, ponds and other natural habitats, keeping animal welfare as a high priority, strengthening local communities and paying our farmers a fair price. Usually, organic farmers and producers reduce packaging and processing too – another benefit to the planet. What’s more it has been shown that plant, insect and bird numbers are 50% greater on organic farms so we are looking after our native wildlife, too.
The bottom line is that buying organic is likely to be better for you and the planet. There is increasing evidence of lower chemical residues in organically produced food, and some studies show increased nutrients too. Whether these differences are enough to make a significant difference to long-term health are yet to be fully determined though – so it's up to you to decide if you can afford the extra cost of buying organic.