16 August 2009

Ignore the FSA and continue to believe in the best of organic foods

Ignore the FSA and continue to believe in the best of organic foods

I have reflected further on the Food Standards Agency ("FSA") report on the nutritional and health effects of organic.  And I have 2 further thoughts, being, firstly, that the concept of the report is irrelevant, and, secondly, there is probably no practicable way of proving any difference between non-organic and organic on a purely chemical basis except for the impact of pesticide, herbicide and chemical fertilisers on health. 

And finally just because government departments state that there are no differences between organic and non-organic and that chemical residues should be ignored because they are, in their experimental opinion, safe, but they have missed something or the technology for measuring differences and safe limits is still too imprecise - at an extreme end, smoking and drinking alcohol is legal but clearly unsafe while DDT and dieldrin were considered safe for many years, whereas they are now generally regarded as very unsafe. 

Or how about something more recent.  Our very own "Silent Spring" where the sound of honeybees has collapsed rather than songbirds.  Honeybee populations have collapsed across Europe and caused billions to die across the world.  The collapse in honeybee populations is linked to neonicotinoid based pesticides.  These have been banned in France for use on sunflowers and are now banned in Italy and Germany as well, while the EC has suggested tough controls.  But what does the British Government do, nothing.  In April 2009, Hillary Benn said: [there is] "no evidence the use of those pesticides caused the decline in bee numbers."

Point 1: the FSA report is irrelevant

Let's have a thought-based experiment.  Take 3 beef steaks: a cheap cut, a piece of beef that has been hung for 25 - 30 days, a slice of steak that has come from a rare breed of cattle that has been allowed to graze out on pasture and finally a steak from cattle that had been kept indoors with no light and fed on GM foodstuffs.  Now undertake a nutritional analysis of these based on 20 categories and compare and contrast.  At the same time, make observations on the colour and appearance, then cook in a light sunflower oil and taste, making notes of the taste differences.  I suspect that nutritionally they would be broadly similar and that there would be no statistical evidence for choosing one type of beef over the other, nor would I expect that you would find any evidence of better health properties of one form of beef over the other. 

Now take the results of each set of statistics and get hold of the raw ingredients, i.e. pure nitrogen, pure carbohydrates and pure fatty acids.  Put the relevant quantities in 4 separate bowls, mix them up and taste them.  Your taste buds are actually a much more sophisticated real-time chemical analyser than a laboratory and I doubt it would even taste of beef!

You can do the same with any type of food.  Think about vegetables - take a value potato from a grocery multiple, another from their specialist "Best of.." selection, another freshly picked from your garden and one that has been grown in a laboratory using  pure nutrients in a liquid medium.  Get the nutritional analysis and then cook them by simply boiling them in water and taste.

The point is that normal people do not make their purchasing decisions on the basis of a list of nutrients provided by a laboratory.  In fact, very few consumers actually even look at the nutritionals and ingredients on a pack, unless they are on a particular diet. 

It depends on whether food is a purely functional chemical experience or is actually a form of pleasure.  If it is purely a functional experience, then I suggest that you by the pure chemicals from a chemicals distributor, mix them up and add water - delicious?!  If there is even an iota of a sense of pleasure, then buy what your taste buds want and your ethics desire.  After all, your taste buds are probably a better judge of what a human being needs than a laboratory rat, as it is what has helped our race survive in the world.

Point 2: there is no practicable experiment to provide a reason to buy organic food over non-organic (if you exclude chemical residues!)

There is a really good diagram on page 7 entitled "Figure 1: Conceptual framework outlining factors affecting nutrient variability".  You don't actually need to see the diagram, save to know that the research authors have postulated 5-6 categories of factors that influence food that is produced and a further 8 factors that impact nutrient make-up of the food on your plate.

And that's the point, it is a vastly complex area of science that may only result in marginal differences in each individual chemical.  Many of these marginal changes may be statistically possible in random variation or from changed weather patterns or different breeds of plant or animal etc etc.

It is perhaps just a glorious bureaucratic exercise in finding the wood and missing the trees and then failing to see that you have a mixed wood with flowers and insects, frogs and mice, birds and deer.

I have often pondered on whether you could ever successfully use pure science adequately to explain such complex biological systems.

Use this thought experiment.

I give you 3 cubed pieces of stone-like material, 1mm x 1mm x 1mm.  I ask you to analyse it chemically and to give me the results in 10 categories.  Now I give you another 10 pieces of the material from the same area, but this time they are in triangles of 1mm x 1mm x 1mm and 10mm deep.  Once again I ask for chemical analysis.  In fact, I will now give you 2000 bits of material 1mm x 1mm x 10cm deep and you can do any form of chemical or physical analysis of the bits of material.

Now bring back the results and give me your conclusions.

Your results will be very noble, done with lots of conviction and hard work.  They will show that you understand how to use lots of very expensive kit and do statistical analysis etc.

But what they will not be able to tell me is what it is, so I will show you.

Now stand back and look at the bigger picture and it is very big and complex.  It is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as painted by Michelangelo, which has been restored a few times since he first painted it.  No experimental system would have got the big picture and it is only the big picture that matters, not the detailed minutiae of chemicals or physics.  It is the way Michelangelo put together all those differents shapes and colours onto the roof within the centre of the Roman Catholic faith in Rome that matters.

It is the same with organic food, Fairtrade products, free range products and well made food.  It's the whole story that matters, not the individual bits.


The FSA's approach is like that of the British in building the British Empire.  Divide and rule, create rules and get the conquered people to stick by them on pain of military retaliation.  Looking back on what was once regarded as right and proper, we see much to be ashamed of. 

Times change, opinions change, the world turns and moves on.  Bill Clinton and the 2 George Bushes ignored global warming as a provable phenomenon, but Barrack Obama has it at the centre of his thoughts. 

Organic farming is better for the earth, it produces better food than conventional farming and is significantly better for the planet than GM crops.  For those who believe that we are stewards of the earth rather than owners organic farming is the only possible creed.  We must persevere in our belief in organic in the face of those who would try to dissuade the rest against that viewpoint.  We must continue to have courage in our convictions and defend those views without any cowardice.