UK Food Standards Agency Study Proves Organic Food Is Better

The results in its recent study appears to prove organic food is likely to be better than conventional food by a probability of 99.95 percent. “A cancerous conspiracy to poison your faith in organic food”[1] was how food writer Joanna Blythman referred to the latest report of UK Food Standards Agency (FSA that claimed to find no nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods, bringing to a climax the barrage of criticisms that greeted its publication online at the end of July 2009 [3-5]. The FSA report is surprising, and contradicts a host of recent studies documenting significant differences in antioxidants, vitamins and other micronutrients, all in favour of organic food that we have reviewed in our own report (see Chapter 20 of [6] Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , ISIS publication).

Not to mention a major study published March 2008 [7] by scientists of The Organic Center (TOC) in the United States, which finds that organic food is superior to conventional in more than 60 percent of proper “matched pair” comparisons, i.e., with conventional and organic crops grown side by side at the same time. The TOC group is updating its review to include 15 studies that have appeared since.

My own reading of the FSA report uncovered its startling result - which seems to have escaped the attention of the authors of the report and  the FSA - actually in favour of organic food, despite all the methodological biases against such a finding. The FSA has long had an anti-organic policy, and this latest attempt at discrediting organic food may turn out to be the strongest endorsement of organic that anyone could have made.

Methods designed to exclude authentic studies and inflate variation

The review appears designed not to find in favour of organic in many respects. It only looked at research papers with abstracts written in English, and excluded the results of nearly half the papers found because they failed to mention the organic certifying body. That would leave out all academic studies potentially capable of providing the most rigorous and authentic data.  On top of that, it ignored more up-to-date research from the European Union published in April this year, despite knowing this research was due to be published [5]. 

What it did include were farm surveys and ‘basket studies’ of food that can be purchased from retailers, where the crops were not at all comparable, as they were not matched pairs (see earlier). To make matters worse, some studies included were more than 50 years old, when nutrients in a variety of foods were at significantly higher concentrations than they are today, as documented for the UK [8] and in the United States [9]. Thus, the variations in both conventional and organic samples were artificially inflated, and the chance of detecting significant differences correspondingly diminished.

Results still came out clearly in favour of organic food

Despite these methodological flaws, the review did detect three highly significant differences out of 11 nutrients that favoured the organic: a decrease in nitrate of 6.7 percent (p = 0.003), and increases in phosphate of 8.1 percent (p = 0.009) and titratable acidity (an indication of ripeness in fruit) of 6.8 percent (p = 0.01).

However, all eight remaining nutrients - vitamin C, phenolic compounds, magnesium, calcium, potassium, zinc, total soluble solids, and copper - appeared positive in favour of organic, even though they did not reach statistical significance. If there were truly no significant differences between organic and conventional, one would expect half of the difference to be in favour of conventional and half in favour of organic; the probability of getting 11 out of 11 in favour of organic, according to the ‘sign test’ in statistics, is (0.5)11,  giving p <0.0005, which is miniscule. We can therefore firmly reject the null hypothesis that there is no difference between organic and conventional food. Contrary to what is claimed by the report and the FSA, organic is really better, despite all attempts at fudging the issue.

The results are fully in line with successive reviews and studies [6, 7] after all.

A lot missing in the FSA review

The review is very unbalanced as far as organic agriculture is concerned, and extremely worrying if it is to be used by the UK government as a guide to its food policy; especially as an excuse to promote genetically modified (GM) food and feed.  The UK government is reported to be investing up to £ 100 m in GM research projects in the developing world [10], when it has singularly failed to convince its own citizens to accept GM food and feed.

The FSA review specifically did not look at levels of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides or their proven negative impacts on human and animal health. It did not deal with the environmental consequences of conventional agricultural practices in reducing biodiversity, increasing soil erosion, destroying soil fertility and depleting water. Nor did it address animal welfare, social benefits to local communities, or the significant contributions organic localised agriculture can make to mitigating climate change, all of which we have documented in detail [6, 10] (Organic Agriculture and Localized Food & Energy Systems for Mitigating Climate Change, SiS 40). And our findings have been fully confirmed in other important publications such as the International Assessment on Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development [11], representing the scientific consensus across the globe that small scale local organic agro-ecological farming is the way ahead to sustainable food production, in which GM has no place.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

A fully referenced version of this report has been submitted to the Food Standards Agency, and is available for download here




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