Two weeks ago, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published a research review suggesting there are no significant nutrient differences between organic and non-organic food and no additional health benefits. Nothing short of a media frenzy has ensued. Ben Cooper examines how the subject has been addressed by interested parties and the press.

The publication of a research review commissioned by the UK’s Food Standards Agency into whether organic food carries any health benefits over non-organic has provoked more reaction and comment than might ever have been expected.

While the organic industry can hardly have welcomed the findings, the extent of the reaction has at least shown it can no longer be viewed as a faddish irrelevance.

The review was conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and led by Dr Alan Dangour, who said when it was published: “A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance. Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.”

Gill Fine, FSA director of consumer choice and dietary health, said the Agency was concerned with ensuring people had “accurate information”, supported “consumer choice” and was “neither pro nor anti organic food”.

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That is not how many in the organic community saw it. Pro-organic writers, campaigners and bloggers jumped to condemn the review, suggesting it was over-selective and had omitted research weighing in favour of nutrient differences. In particular, the FSA was criticised for deliberately excluding any discussion of pesticide residues in the scope of the research. Conspiracy theories abounded, with the FSA accused of being in the pocket of big business. Dr Dangour was reported to have received hate mail from activists.

By contrast, the Soil Association (SA), the UK’s organic representative body, was quite restrained. Peter Melchett, SA policy director, said it was “disappointed” at the review’s conclusions. He added that it had “rejected almost all of the existing studies of comparisons between organic and non-organic nutritional differences” because they did not meet the criteria fixed by the LSHTM.

The SA went on to draw certain figures from the FSA study which it said supported the existence of higher levels of beneficial nutrients in organic food.

It was also critical that the review omitted a GBP12m, four-year study, led by Carlo Leifert, professor of ecology at Newcastle University, which had concluded that the levels of a range of nutritionally desirable compounds, such as antioxidants, vitamins and glycosinolates, were higher in organic crops, while levels of certain undesirable compounds were lower. The study found organic milk contained around 60% more antioxidants and beneficial fatty acids than non-organic milk.

The reason for this appears to be that this was published after the February 2008 cut-off date set by the FSA. But Professor Leifert was quoted in the Independent as saying that such reviews could be influenced by their research criteria. “My feeling – and quite a lot of people think this – is that this is probably the study that delivers what the FSA wanted as an outcome,” he said.

Molly Conisbee, director of campaigns and communications at the Soil Association, added in an article in the Daily Telegraph that “people don’t only buy organic food because they think it will make them healthier”. Conisbee added that the EU’s Quality Low Input Food project found that regular organic consumers have “a much more sophisticated understanding of the range of benefits” organic offers, extending “well beyond” nutrition. 

Underlining just how much interest the review has attracted, organic groups from other countries, including the US, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, all publicly criticised the study.

UK agriculture pressure group Sustain was critical of the whole premise of the report. Speaking to just-food, Sustain’s Jeanette Longfield said the review was bound to produce this conclusion because of the lack of research into the nutrient differences between organic and non-organic food, or longitudinal research into health benefits. She suggested the FSA would have been better concentrating on a holistic study, focusing on all the attributes of organic food, rather than just the nutritional profile.

This also chimed with much of the rhetoric coming from organic brands, which emphasised that consumers buy organic produce for a whole range of reasons, including the idea that it might be better for them. Brands also were quick to stress that their marketing conformed to that idea, rather than suggesting organic food was intrinsically healthier.

While some newspapers, including the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, featured articles defending organic farming, many columnists attacked the organic industry. In the critical comment, there was a prevailing sense that the organic sector, overpriced and overhyped, was in some way getting its comeuppance. The Observer described the report as “exploding the myth” that organic food was better for us, while the Sunday Times said “organic food is just a tax on the gullible”. In the Guardian, author and NHS doctor Ben Goldacre, dismissed the response of the Soil Association as “bad science” and “gamesmanship”.

Criticism of how the organic industry has responded not only came from the media. In a surprise move last Friday (7 Aug), the FSA made a second statement regarding the review, specifically criticising how supporters of the organic movement had selected findings in the review to support their arguments.

FSA chief executive Tim Smith said in an open letter that “irresponsible interpretation” of the review by some had resulted in “misleading claims” being made about higher levels of some nutrients in organic food”. Smith also reiterated why pesticides were excluded from the review. “Our position on the safety of pesticides is already clear,” he said. “Pesticides are rigorously assessed and their residues are closely monitored.” 

Some have suggested the story has garnered so much coverage because it is the summer, or ‘silly season’, when there is a dearth of substantial news items. It has also been fanned by one or two interesting sub-plots, most notably some customarily colourful remarks by the CEO of the Whole Foods Market retail chain, John Mackey, on the integrity of some of the products his company sells –hardly the best timing for such candour. Also, the ownership of Duchy Originals, the company set up by organic champion HRH The Prince of Wales, has been a subject of speculation, a further reminder that organic sales have been on the slide.

And before the dust had begun to settle, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published its UK Food Security Assessment and launched a major consultation on the future of the UK food supply.

At the end of a difficult ten days, it was a perfect opportunity for the Soil Association to articulate the sustainability benefits of organic farming and get away from the health question.

Soil Association policy advisor Helen Browning boldly said organic farming could deliver against three key sustainability criteria, namely making food systems less dependent on fossil fuels, more resilient in the face of climate change and able to contribute to the Government’s pledges on greenhouse gas emissions. However, she added that a recent report by Reading University had showed “organic farming could provide us with a far healthier and much more climate-friendly diet”.

Was the allusion to health rather admirable chutzpah, poor judgment or simply force of habit? We don’t know. But whether the organic sector can continue to make casual references to health benefits is definitely open to question. It could be a habit it will have to kick.