A couple of stories caught my eye recently. There’s the serious outbreak of E-Coli in Germany, provisionally blamed on organic cucumbers from Spain — although to be fair to the Spanish, the very latest reports say this may be a misdiagnosis. According to the BBC, Russia has already moved to ban imports of these cucumbers and related products.
This is one of those reports that challenges our comfortable preconceptions. We (or many of us) think of organic food as healthy, virtuous, safe, tasty, good for the children, full of vitamins and minerals and natural goodness, free of nasties. This is not always the case. There are a number of reports indicating that in nutritional terms, organic fruit and veg are no different from the regular kind. And tasty? Taste is in the mouth of the consumer, but again it’s difficult to pin down any clear evidence that organic food offers any taste benefits.
An aside: the very word “organic” is a misnomer. Strictly speaking, the term “organic” applies to a wide range of complex molecules which are (broadly speaking) based on carbon. And you’ll find just the same organic molecules in every cucumber, organic or not. In fact the only foodstuffs I can think of which are not organic are salt and water.
There are other problems with so-called “organic foods”. While they may avoid the (usually very safe and very low) levels of chemical fertilisers and pesticides that occur in general supermarket veg, they have far higher levels of dirt, mud and bacteria. This may or may not include the Spanish e-coli, but the general point stands.
But the more fundamental and far-reaching criticism of organic food is that it decimates yields. A field of organic produce may produce only half, or less, of what a regular crop would yield. Which brings me to my second story: OxFam is warning that staple food prices may double in the next twenty years. They may be right. We expect world population to grow by 2030, and to keep growing until at least 2050. It will be increasingly challenging to feed this growing population. The last thing we need is new crops with dramatically lower yields.
And there is yet another related problem: large tracts of agricultural land are being given over to bio-fuels — growing food to burn. There are only two ways to grow bio-fuels. You can take over land previously used for food crops. Or you can bring new land under cultivation — which generally means further pressure on natural ecosystems.
In a tightening food market, a relatively small percentage of agricultural production diverted to bio-fuels can result in disproportionate price rises.
So the benefits of organic food? It costs more, it’s no better, it has more bacteria — and it threatens world food production. A bit like wind farms, organic food is a trendy middle-class affectation that may give us a warm glow, but threatens to damage the planet and the poor.