Recent research has once again opened the question of whether organic food quality is better than non-organic, but what difference does this make to health (what is health?) and how do the food and other choices made by organic consumers also influence health?
Lawrence Woodward (ORC): Chair
The session opened with Lawrence Woodward introducing the inspirational work of Mary Langman on health and her pivotal role in the dissemination and communication of the founding principles of organic farming.
Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, presented the current state of debate over whether or not organic food is better for you and how the public discourse has differed from the scientific. Following the extensive coverage of the 2009 Dangour study the media has portrayed organic produce as no healthier than non-organic. However results from the 2014 Newcastle University led meta-analysis, an arguably more robust study, show there are in fact significant nutritional differences. The report concludes that organic produce contains significantly higher levels of anti-oxidants and significantly lower levels of the heavy metal cadmium, both believed to be due to the exclusion of chemical fertilizers. Peter emphasised the importance of reporting research of a high quality and credibility in the media, and the responsibility of the organic movement to undo the damage done to the global organic sector by the 2009 Dangour study. Continued research, such as that being undertaken at Newcastle University, is needed to inform the public and change perceptions.
Anja Vieweger from ORC presented research on the use of health concepts in the pursuit of quality in food production. One of the fundamental principles of organic agriculture is that it should sustain and enhance health. But what do we mean by health and is it’s meaning the same in different science domains? Through analysing the definitions of health used within different research areas – soil, plant, animal, human and ecosystem – it was shown that indicators of health differ between categories. For future development of health standards and policy there is a need to be aware of the different perceptions and understandings of the term health and for a universally accepted and understood definition of health. Communicating what health is through demonstration may be an effective way forward. ORC has recently secured funding for a follow up project aiming to set up networks that demonstrate best practice examples of health in agriculture.
Lawrence Woodward and Peter Melchett
The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:
There are nutritional differences between conventional and organic produce. However these differences may not be as much as we would have hoped for. Could this be down to the variable nature of organic farming systems?
Humans often have an innate capability to judge levels of well-being even without measurement. How do these abilities translate into standards and policy? Is there a danger that the use of metrics will override our own judgment?
The concept of health should be applicable throughout the farming system and food chain – even processing.
Health is a process not a state.
All speakers encouraged the audience to get more directly involved in the organic breeding process in whatever way is most appropriate to them, whether in the development of populations on-farm, supporting the EU temporary marketing experiment or promoting the use of home grown, local wheat in bread making.
Individual speaker presentations and abstracts
Peter Melchett (Soil Association): Organic farming and growing impacts on food quality – the Newcastle study (2.49mb pdf file)
The 2014 Newcastle University led meta-analysis of nutritional differences between organic and non-organic crops looked at 343 individual, peer-reviewed research studies, 45% of which were published between 2008 and 2011, after the cut-off point of the 2009 Dangour study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency. We know that heavy use of manufactured nitrogen fertiliser suppresses production of defence compounds in plants, and the additional data provided by so many recent studies has now allowed scientists to find statistically significant differences between organic and non-organic fruit, vegetables grains and pulses. The results of the study on nutrients, heavy metals and pesticides will be discussed. Importantly, the global impact of the study will be considered, along with further meta-analyses due from the same team, and the implications of the research findings for the organic movement.
Anja Vieweger (ORC): Health concepts in food and farming (827kb pdf file)
Promoting and maintaining health, as one of the highest human goals, is a central aim of agroecological farming approaches. The key statement of the principles of organic agriculture claims “the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible” (Lady Eve Balfour, 1940). It describes the connection of health between the different domains and ecosystems, and implies that the promotion and maintenance of human health critically depends on the health of all other agricultural domains. However, current debates about the meaning and measurement of health are largely disconnected: soil science, plant pathology, veterinary science and human medicine are following separate paths to define and measure health. For the understanding of potential mechanisms linking the health of various domains together, it is therefore necessary to study the compatibility of different health concepts across disciplinary borders.