Its unassuming location belies its importance. Sandwiched between Hadrians Wall and the busy A69 road to Newcastle upon Tyne is a 725-acre farm that will help to determine the nations future eating habits. In a unique experiment, its rolling pastures and ploughed fields have been split into two so that conventional and organic produce can be grown side by side. It has enabled scientists to test the alternative foods rigorously and answer a question that most shoppers ask themselves on a regular basis: is buying organic better for you?
Findings from the £12m European Union-funded project, the biggest of its kind and the first to investigate systematically the physiology of produce from the different farming techniques, will be peer reviewed and published over the next 12 months.
But already one conclusion is clear: organically produced crops and dairy milk usually contain more beneficial compounds - such as vitamins and antioxidants believed to help to combat disease.
We have a general trend in the data that says there are more good things in organic food, said Professor Carlo Leifert, leader of the QualityLowInput-Food (QLIF) project. We are now trying to identify the agricultural practices that are responsible for this.
The research has shown up to 40% more beneficial compounds in vegetable crops and up to 90% more in milk. It has also found high levels of minerals such as iron and zinc in organic produce.
The findings from the farm, which is part of Newcastle University, appear to conflict with the official government advice that buying organic food is a lifestyle choice and there is no clear evidence that it is more nutritious than other food.
The new research comes after a seven-year stand-off between the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the organic sector over the nutritional benefits of organic food. Lord Krebs, the FSAs first chairman, even said that organic food may not be good value for consumers.
The organic market has boomed in recent years, growing by 25% annually on average, and is now worth nearly £2 billion a year. Organic produce is typically about 30% more expensive, although for products such as cherry tomatoes and carrots it is almost double the price. Supermarket organic milk is 18% more expensive.
The FSA has recently offered a more conciliatory approach to organic groups such as the Soil Association. One internal e-mail, sent on August 1, 2006 and obtained under freedom of information laws, states: [There is] a perception among a range of stakeholders that the agency is antiorganic. Part of the action to address this is to change the tone of our statements.
However, the agency has not changed its scientific advice. As David Miliband, then the environment secretary, told The Sunday Times last January: Its a lifestyle choice that people can make. There isnt any conclusive evidence either way.
However, the evidence of the nutritional differences has been mounting. Last summer a 10-year study by the University of California comparing organic tomatoes with those grown conventionally found double the level of flavonoids - a type of antioxidant thought to reduce the risk of heart disease. Other studies show milk having higher levels of omega3 fatty acids, thought to boost health.
Over the past four years, the QLIF project, involving 33 academic centres across Europe and led by Newcastle University, has analysed the 725-acre farms produce for compounds believed to boost health and combat disease.
Like other studies, the results show significant variations, with some conventional crops having larger quantities of some vitamins than organic crops. But researchers confirm that the overall trend is that organic fruit, vegetables and milk are more likely to have beneficial compounds. According to Leifert, the compounds which have been found in greater quantities in organic produce include vitamin C, trace elements such as iron, copper and zinc, and secondary metabolites which are thought to help to combat cancer and heart disease.
Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said the research could help to contribute to a seismic change in the food industry: If you know there are significant nutritional differences in these foods, any sensible citizen would conclude it must have health implications.
Andrew Wadge, the FSAs chief scientist, said the agency had ordered a review of evidence on the nutritional content of organic and conventional produce. He said that even if the review found significant differences, the government would still need to assess any possible impact on health.
He added that the debate over the relative benefits of organic food should not blur the key message on diet and health. The organic brand has been hugely successful, he said. But the most important issue is not whether people are eating organic or not, but whether they are eating a healthy balanced diet.