The organic principle of health (IFOAM) describes the connection of health between soils, plants, animals and humans; and suggests that human health strongly depends on the health of all other agricultural domains. This workshop explores and discusses possible translations into practice. This session was organised by the Organic Research Centre (ORC)
Anja Vieweger (ORC): chair with Lawrence Woodward (whole Organic Plus).
As organic farming has developed so the concept of health has developed with it. Lady Eve Balfour’s concept that “the health of soils, plants, animals and man is one and indivisible” has had a profound effect on the ideas and discussion that have led to the IFOAM principles of organic agriculture. Although the wording of the principles has changed with time, the health principle still embodies the concept that the quality of the products of an organic system will relate to the farm environment in which the plants or animals are produced. That in turn depends on how the natural environment is managed and thus the management plays a key role in product quality. The enormous variation in approaches to the management of organic agriculture may help to explain why the produce itself is variable and why there are so few consistent differences between organic and conventional food. There have been a number of recent refereed publications that have examined the evidence for quantifiable differences between organic and conventional food. Authors have come to different conclusions using the same evidence depending on the study and statistical design used. There clearly are some differences but there is a high degree of variability and the studies are inconclusive. A recent study funded by the Ekhaga Foundation looked at how different scientific disciplines use the term health and how they try to quantify it.
The discussion highlighted several issues:
- Farmers are not necessarily focused on growing for health – they pick varieties for other reasons like yield or disease resistance of the crop
- The area where the differences are clearest is minimal pesticide residues – however, many feel that we should not market organic produce on the absence of something and it is misleading as some pesticides are allowed and are used, and they are endemic in the environment. Also supermarkets do not like this as it suggests there may be something wrong with conventional produce.
- There have been important developments in methodology for measuring life forces in food. For example, the use of crystallisation is now recognised as a repeatable test but it is still not clear what the results mean. There is a move to get the industry to recognise the use of crystallisation as a test for organic provenance but as yet, this has not been taken up.
- At present effort is focused on quantifying differences between organic and conventional produce. There is much interest in taking a whole food chain approach to this but it is difficult to envisage how this could be measured cost-effectively. It is very difficult to address this issue in a holistic way even in this forum!
The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:
- Variability in management may be the key to explaining why scientific studies have failed to find consistent differences between organic and conventional produce.
- These studies are reductionist in nature but we need to be thinking of systems and population health, not individual health.
- Farmers should be encouraged to grow for health.
- The area where the differences between organic and conventional produce are clearest is minimal pesticide residues – however, many feel that we should not market organic produce on the absence of something.
- It would be desirable, but difficult, to develop a whole food chain approach to assessing the impacts of organic production on health.
- It is intuitive that good health coming from good farming systems especially good soil. This may be a good message for promoting organic food.
Individual speaker presentations and abstracts
Lawrence Woodward (Whole Organic Plus and ORC): The IFOAM Principle of Health: background and development
Anja Vieweger (ORC): Reviewing and Developing Health Concepts for Ecological Agriculture: project results
During two international expert workshops of the research project ‘Reviewing and Developing Health Concepts for Ecological Agriculture’ funded by the Swedish Ekhaga Foundation, the IFOAM principle of health and its translation into regulations and practice were discussed. The organic principle of health has adopted the vision of Lady Eve Balfour that “organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and the planet as one an indivisible”, suggesting that human health strongly depends on the health of all other agricultural domains. Now if we take the findings of the project and its qualitative literature analysis on the current use of health concepts in agriculture into account, it becomes clear that the specific ‘languages spoken’ and concepts used in the different (but connected!) domains can lead to obstacles and difficulties when the principle is applied in practise. We found that there are some similarities of concepts and criteria to describe health in the different domains; however, many concepts are not equally shared or comparable. We conclude that an open dialogue among the disciplines is needed for a clearer understanding of links between the health of soils, plants, animals, humans and ecosystems; then also rules and regulations could be formulated in a more applied and clear form to enable the direct translation of principles into practice.