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Age and Ageing

“I’ve changed my attitudes about what it means to age. Sometimes people decide

it’s their lot in life to be old, but people like Grandma bring colour and excellence to their lives.

That’s what I’ve tried to do too. I’m looking forward to the next stage.”

Cloris Leachman

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How organic is organic food, really?

It was the summer of 2006. I had just graduated from university. Like a lot of university students, the period spent seeing the world with different eyes made me decide that it was time to change my diet to mirror my devout animal rights beliefs. I was to become a vegetarian.

I was never pegged as someone who would make such a choice. For instance, I remember staying at a friend’s abode one evening when we were teenagers and having to be coaxed into eating the lentil soup her mother had cooked. I wasn’t normally a fussy eater but I took one sip and decided at that moment that it wasn’t for me. When I told my best friend about my choice, she asked, “aren’t you the same girl who used to chase me around with Chicken McNuggets when I was a vegetarian?” “Erm,” I paused, guiltily, “who can recall such things…”

At the same time, likely due to a heightened ‘healthy foods’ mindset that my new diet brought to me, I began to notice that the words ‘organic’, ‘ethical’, ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ could be seen in tandem popping up all over the place – these were often mentioned together, implying that they were linked somewhat.

Organic farming originates from Lord Northbourne in 1939 book, ‘Look to the land’. Northbourne referred to “the farm as [an] organism” and that chemical farming “cannot be self sufficient nor an organic whole.” It was then picked up as a concept by small, independent farms and shops around the world selling locally. They would grow their crops, “making use of crop rotation, environmental management and good animal husbandry to control pests and diseases.” Sales relied on a basis of trust, formed from a direct relationship between the consumer and the farmer. This would be complemented further by the farmer inviting people to witness the naturalistic methods used, further driving home that their methods were indeed organic.

In the 1990s, organic food had a surge in popularity as health and wellbeing became more fashionable – and likely a reaction against incidents in farming such as ‘Mad Cow Disease’ which occurred through erroneous methods of feeding livestock. Health food chains began to boom and the world organic industry made yearly growths of 20% per year, growing more rapidly than the rest of the food industry.

However, with the popularity, independent providers now had to compete with supermarket chains who saw this opportunity to increase their revenue. This meant trust was replaced with organic certification. In the UK, this is overseen by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), along with a number of certification bodies – the UK’s two leading bodies are Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G) and the Soil Association (SA).

The organic industry has some great ideas that are genuinely ethical which I commend as someone who cares very much for the welfare of animals and the environment. For example:

  • By not using chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, the ecosystem and marine life which can normally be destroyed by chemical run off are not as organic pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers are derived from plants – this also increases biodiversity;
  • In addition, not using said chemicals makes for healthier soil, particularly for developing countries where drought plays a part
  • As there is little use of additives in organic foods, this is good news for many people with allergies;
  • Organic Farming focuses on Animal Welfare. The term ‘organic’ has now evolved to include ‘free range’ so not only are livestock not allowed to be injected with hormones or have prolonged – or unnecessary – use of antibiotics, but they are also increasingly being treated more humanely in the UK;
  • There is some evidence to suggest that organic versions of some foods has its nutritious benefits, e.g., omega 3 fats in organic milk which are good for the heart;
  • Good emphasis on locally grown foods means that UK farmers benefit as does our economy.

My concern in all of this, however, is how organic is organic food, really? Furthermore, what does the future look like for organic foods?

The problem is that whilst the word ‘organic’ requires set standards as outlined by the country in which the food would be sold – either by government or third party organisations – this doesn’t mean that any particular crop is entirely organic. Certification bodies suggest a 95% rule applies. For instance, in 2006, SA were criticised for allowing organic accreditation to chicken farms who trimmed the beaks of their chickens to ‘stop them from pecking one another’. This goes against the animal welfare stream of the organic system. So, if you are buying organically, expecting it to be 100% organic, it might be better if you grow your own foods. Then you can be sure. Or, simply ask your provider about the process. In addition, even though the rules suggest no chemicals, they can be used as a ‘last resort’ and not all synthetic fertilisers have been ruled out. Furthermore, there is concern that accreditation bodies are under pressure to be even more lax with their standards by big supermarkets and that the original organic ethos is being lost.

Secondly, whilst the word organic might have set standards, words such as ‘natural’ do not. This is currently a grey area in food regulation and means that companies marketing food as natural tend to pick up the consumers who mistook them as a part of the organic group. In other words, generic-named-soup might include ‘all natural ingredients’, but that in no way means the ingredients are organic as the very use of the word organic means a fee.

Again, organic certification costs money. This drives out independent groups and farmers who cannot afford the fees certification bodies ask of them. Big chain supermarkets can, so for the unlucky ones who haven’t teamed up with a supermarket as provider, not only do they pay the fees to sell their organic produce, they also have to pay to market their produce more and lower their produce prices as supermarket own-brand organic ranges become more popular.

Yield in organic farming is said to be up to half that of conventional farming – depending on who you ask – and is criticised as not being substantive to supply the world’s population the food it needs. Supermarkets are not able to source all their produce from one country and this racks up ‘food miles.’ Ultimately, for all the talk of organic foods being better for the environment, how much better can they be for the earth if you have to use so much fuel and spread forth so many Carbon Dioxide emissions to transport them over international waters?

This could be solved if governing bodies in Europe were to lift its ban on Genetically Modified (GM) foods, but they do not based on largely limited evidence that this might be harmful to the earth and for human consumption. This is despite various studies that have found there to be no adverse health effects on eating GM foods and despite, as a 2008 review by the Royal Society of Medicine rightly noted, GM foods have been eaten by millions of people in the last 15 years without report of ill health. Just ask Norman Borlaug, referred to as the father of the ‘Green Revolution’. Penn and Teller, magician-cum-TV-presenters, featured Borlaug in their show, Penn and Teller’s Bulls**t in an episode discussing environmentalism. They called him the “Greatest Human Being That Ever Lived” in reference to Borlaug having created high-yield, disease resistant wheats that is estimated to have saved “one billion lives worldwide.” In reference to the opposition to GM foods, Borlaug said: “some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertiliser and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

In addition, a lot of the foods we eat nowadays has been modified scientifically for our convenience. For example, seedless fruits such as watermelon and grapes. It is fair to suggest more research needs to be done on GM foods and its long term effects, but what of the last fifteen years? Doesn’t that count?

Finally, a lot of providers suggest that organic food is healthier, using that as a marketing point to sell their foods. However, how ethical is it to suggest to people that eating organically is healthier when no proof of such exists?

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) recently released results of an organic review in August 2009 as commissioned by the FSA. This was a study of all literature in the last fifty years with regards to health benefits of organic food in comparison to food produced through conventional methods. They concluded that: “a small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock, but [that] these are unlikely to be of any health relevance. Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventionally produced food on the basis of nutrition.” However, Peter Melchett, Policy Director of SA has publicly criticised the review that “positive differences” were rejected as “too variable to be statistically significant”, and for not addressing health as affected by pesticide toxin levels.

Regardless, the organic industry continues to rise. Which industry is better? This is not clear. It is clear, however, that more research needs to be done into the long term effects of conventional and organic farming. In the meantime, I encourage consumers to be more savvy and to ask questions about their food. That way, they can make informed choices about the foods that they eat, rather than to be compelled to eat a certain way simply because someone has said so. I will leave you with this quote from Professor Ottoline Leyser of York University: “People think that the more natural something is, the better it is for them. That is simply not the case. In fact, it is the opposite that is true: the closer a plant is to its natural state, the more likely it is that it will poison you. Naturally, plants do not want to be eaten, so we have spent 10,000 years developing agriculture and breeding out harmful traits from crops. ‘Natural agriculture’ is a contradiction in terms.”

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