The debate concerning organic produce heated up in the UK this weekend when the Chairman of the Government Food Standards Agency, Sir John Krebs, told BBC viewers there was no evidence that organically grown produce was healthier than that produced using conventional farming methods.

Unless they knowingly pay for a holistic approach to farming, Sir John Krebs stated that the public are not necessarily getting value for money by buying organic. He believes that “the organic industry relies on image, and that image is one that many consumers want to sign up to. However, I do think they should be aware of what they’re getting when they pay quite a substantial premium.” He claimed that the organic label does not guarantee “extra nutritional quality or extra safety,” adding “We don’t have the evidence to support those claims.”

His comments contradict the results of research carried out by the Soil Association, the UK’s leading organic farming pressure group and certification body, and a review presented to the House of Lords last year of 150 investigations comparing organic and non-organic produce. Both of these reports claimed to confirm that organically grown food had a higher nutritional value. In July, a United Nations FAO report concluded that organic practices can reduce e-coli infection and the levels of contaminants in foods.

Sir John’s comments are supported however by a recent series of independent tests commissioned by the BBC. The Eclipse Science Group in Cambridgeshire examined three types of carrot for the presence of over 40 pesticides, comparing conventionally grown carrots with organic varieties from Britain and abroad. They could discover no trace of pesticide residues in any of the carrots, and Eclipse’s Nigel Gillis commented, “I think the public will be very surprised. Their perception of organic carrots is that they have no pesticides and conventionally grown carrots are riddled with them. We’ve shown with this test that that’s not the case.”

Sir John added that while organic standards in the UK are high, consumers should be aware that this is not necessarily the case in the rest of the world, and that much of our organic produce is imported.

His comments have provoked outrage from environmental groups. Sandra Bell, from Friends of the Earth, said she was “appalled.” She believes that “organic food avoids synthetic pesticides, the routine use of antibiotics and genetically modified ingredients. No-one knows what long term impact these may have on human health.”

Coming at a time when Heinz has announced a decision to produce organic alternatives to its most famous mainstream brands, tomato ketchup, baked beans and spaghetti, the choices and decisions for the consumer appear overwhelming. The Soil Association’s Harry Hadaway blames the confusion on a lack of resources. “A big problem in the UK is the lack of expenditure on research into the benefits of organic food,” he said. He also told just-food.com that he was “deeply concerned that Sir John Krebs is failing to be objective.” But for the time being at least it appears that the nutritional benefits of buying organic are debatable.