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Organics Under the Spotlight – Again

So, there’s little to choose between organic and conventionally produced foods according to the results from yet another research team – this time at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, who undertook a meta-analysis (‘comprehensive synthesis of the evidence that included both benefits and harms’) of existing research.

I’ve been pondering on this since the weekend, after reading Alex Meehan’s fair and balanced ‘Organics Under Siege’ piece in the Sunday Business Post, and also Stanford School of Medicine’s own online report.

Aside from wondering about the usefulness of a result based on analysing a lot of old material without doing any new research, the first thing that struck me is the absurdity of giving a verdict on the value of organic produce based on nothing but a comparison of nutritional analysis. This is simply missing the point about organics – in just the same way as Dr O’Reilly’s misguided ‘calories on menus’ plan misses the point about obesity. There is so much more to food than its calorie content – and by defining organic food simply in terms of its basic nutritional content, the implication is that it has been produced in a vacuum when it’s actually a product of rich, muck-filled earth.

A particular point made by Crystal Smith-Spangler, who led the Stanford team, caught my eye. “What I learned is there’s a lot of variation between farming practices,” said. “It appears there are a lot of different factors that are important in predicting nutritional quality and harms.” Yes, indeed. The traditional farming system that is the backbone of Irish farming is a good one, with its roots in organic methods and the responsible element of stewardship that’s essential for sustainability. But a vital aspect of certified organic production is that there are strict rules laid down before certification, and these are closely monitored. Achieving the organic standard is something to be proud of, and certified organic producers earn the premium prices that their products command. The organic movement may be ‘an industry’, as Professor Michael Gibney of UCD maintains, but it’s an industry based on a wholesome philosophy of sustainable farming which is a force for good – something that definitely can’t be said about the darker side of conventional farming, ie factory farming and all its thuggish offspring.

Personally, while I value many of the benefits of organic production very highly, I’m not totally committed to organic principles when shopping, or as a gardener. In both cases I’m happy to weigh up the pros and cons and then make an organic or a mainstream choice depending on the alternatives offered. When it comes to taste, texture and personal preferences, a lot depends on variety as well as production methods – something we should be hearing more about, from both conventional and organic producers.

I have no problem buying conventionally farmed food, but I do want to know where it comes from and how it is produced – and, when it doubt, buying organic is the reassuring option. I would always give preference to free range meats, and buying local is more important to me than buying organic – as we say on our annual establishment questionnaire “organic is good, local is better, organic and local is best.”

And it does strike me that the scientific establishment doth protest too much – why are they so keen to prove that organic foods are no better than conventional? I smell blood: the organic industry must be doing well enough to pose a threat to conventional production. Now there’s a thing.

Georgina Campbell

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