Illustration: Mike Pick
A few weeks ago, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK issued a report evaluating nutrient levels in organic versus non-organic foods like fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, and dairy products. A team at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine systematically reviewed 162 studies from more than 50 years of research and 3,558 comparisons of nutritional value in food. It is a complete, rigorous piece of research. And they found that, in terms of nutritional content, the differences between organic and non-organic foods are negligible.
As the report states, “…organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content.” They did in fact find some nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods (non-organic crops contain more nitrogen, while organic crops have higher levels of magnesium and zinc, for instance), but concluded that it is “unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.”
So here we have a nicely delimited study of available research with rigorous standards and a fairly worded conclusion, all publicly available to download and read on the FSA website. The reaction, not surprisingly, was spectacular. The British tabloids alternately hooted with delight at the comeuppance of posh bourgeois shopping habits or derisively attacked the study for insulting the people’s common sense. But it was the reaction of the Soil Association, the leading British organic certification organization, which highlighted just how difficult it can be for good science to be understood.
The Soil Association’s response, published in papers across the land, entirely disregarded the intent of the study and instead argued that organic food is better for the environment and contains less pesticides than non-organic food. But in the very first paragraph of the report, the team states that they aren’t looking at the impact on the environment of organic agriculture or the effect of pesticide use, both of which the FSA has extensively examined in other research. They are specifically looking at nutritional comparison. The Soil Association further argued that the FSA report had ignored studies that showed any benefit of organic food. It was the kind of petulant response worthy of a misinformed PR flack with a nation to persuade. As Ben Goldacre incisively dissected on his popular blog, Bad Science, the Soil Association’s response was logically flawed and entirely beside the point.
The FSA study is good science and by attacking, rather than endorsing it, the organic lobby in the UK has been plainly unscientific. It’s hardly the right stance for an organization that carries such widespread support from the well-educated, critical-thinking middle classes who choose to eat organic food. Any of the many other reasons to go organic—whether it is to avoid pesticides, to encourage better livestock practices, or to simply eat better tasting food—are sufficient to continue supporting the efforts of organic farmers. By misrepresenting the science and its intent, the Soil Association has damaged its credibility and objectivity, the very attributes that its organic label—a stamp of approval—is intended to convey.
In the United States this week, the USDA announced that it would be auditing the National Organic Program, which administers production, handling, and labeling standards for all US organic food. The intent of the audit is to, among other things, “build the organic community’s trust in the program.” As Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat points out on her blog, Food Politics, the US public “deeply distrusts the integrity of the organic standards, the honesty of the inspection process, and the claims made for the benefits of organic foods.” If the example in the UK is anything to go by, the US consumer has every reason to be skeptical.
That’s Some Bad Weather
This week, the Pentagon issued a report on national security issues arising from climate change. It had, as Matthew Yglesias at the blog Think Progress suggested, “a bit of a whiff of hubristic imperialism about it.” The idea that global climate change will result in resource conflict isn’t at all new. But for a sense of how quickly things have changed, consider the coverage given only five years ago to an earlier report from the Pentagon that dealt with the issue of rapid global warming. Reading the coverage of that report today provides a useful perspective on how far the idea of climate change has penetrated into the public consciousness.
What seems clear is that when the American military community starts to saber-rattle over climate change by suggesting that there may be threats to the country’s national security, it places a certain kind of urgency on proceedings. Which makes one wonder: If global warming can result in conflict, will the major United Nations climate change meeting in Copenhagen this December broker a peace treaty?
It’s not as if the world’s nations are unaware that the impacts of both climate change and the failure to address its impacts are fundamentally rooted in their own health, wealth, and the prosperity of future generations. The Pentagon’s worst-case scenario makes the polite negotiations that China and the US are currently having over who gets what slice of CO2 emissions rights look like petty distractions. It seems designed to add to the list of pressures that climate delegations face a threat beyond environmental collapse: one of World War III.
The actual report, of course, doesn’t go so far. But perhaps the Pentagon desires peace, after all: They’re certainly doing their part to spur negotiations and a non-military answer to the challenges presented by climate change.
There’s nothing like riding on a planet through a cloud of comet debris to inspire a wonderful state of mind and put our tiny world in perspective. So impressed were we by the Perseids this year that for a couple of hours, Twitter users included the tag “#meteorwatch” with greater frequency than they did “#weloveyoumiley,” the tag for tweets about the American pop starlet Miley Cyrus.
Originally published August 14, 2009