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[A matrix journo sings the corporate song.]

It's wrong to believe that nature is always best

At last, the myth about organic food being better for us has been exploded. Maybe now we can get down to the serious business of feeding our growing population

Robin McKie

The Observer, Sunday 2 August 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/aug/02/organics-food

For years, it was the nation's favourite growth industry. Throughout the Nineties and for much of this decade, organic leeks, carrots, onions and other fruit and vegetables enjoyed a startling upsurge in popularity. More and more supermarket shelf space was devoted to their sale as the middle class rushed for food that was natural and free of pesticides while local entrepreneurs, their car boots bulging with knobbly turnips and strange-looking potatoes, delivered an ever-increasing number of organic veggie boxes to households round the country.

According to one industry estimate, the organic food market was worth more than 2bn in Britain last year and were it not for the recession might have continued to swell for years to come. Today, organically managed farms and estates account for 4% of all UK agricultural land. Despite our financial problems, and the expense of producing low-yield organic foods, it seems the nation still expects its food to be wholesome.

But last week, the movement's image suffered a blow when the Food Standards Agency published a report that examined the different nutrient levels found in crops and livestock from both organic and non-organic farming. It also looked at the health benefits of eating organic food - and decided that there were none.

"Looking at all of the studies published in the last 50 years, we have concluded that there's no good evidence that consumption of organic food is beneficial to health based on the nutrient content," said Dr Alan Dangour, who led the review by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

These were harsh words and they went down like a slimy caterpillar on a lettuce leaf with the movement and its devotees. Letter writers to newspapers and columnists rushed to defend organic food while the Soil Association, the industry body that sets standards for organic farmers, attacked the FSA, describing its report as "limited". It also criticised Dangour for not addressing the issue of pesticide toxin levels in non-organic food, a major issue for organic farmers.

Yet the report - for all its alleged flaws - is an important one. For a start, it is certainly not the work of dogmatic and intractably hostile opponents of the cause: "A cancerous conspiracy," said one food writer. In fact, it raises key global issues.

The world is approaching an environmental crisis that will be triggered by food and water shortages, rising populations and climate change caused by our industrial activities: "A perfect storm," according to the government's chief scientist John Beddington. "Things will start getting really worrying if we don't tackle these problems," he said earlier this year.

Thus an analysis that raises concerns about how food is grown in this country is destined to be enlightening. After all, if organic food is no more beneficial in terms of nutrition than other, standard foodstuffs, why should we pay excessive prices to eat the stuff? Why devote more land to its production?

These are good questions to which the organic movement has clear answers. Their crops cut the danger of pesticide poisoning, improve animal welfare, increase biodiversity and help sustainability. Not a bad package. You may not get a carrot that makes you healthier when you pick an organic one, but at least you won't be swallowing toxins and you will also help the environment. Practically and ethically, it sounds a good buy.

Well, up to a point. For a start, the idea that organic fruit and veg contain no harmful chemicals compared with non-organic produce is simply wrong, scientists argue. Certainly, there are pesticide residues in the latter but there is no evidence these are cumulatively harmful.

More to the point, organic crops - because they are untreated with chemicals - have correspondingly high levels of natural fungal toxins. Thus they balance out: artificial pesticide residues in non-organic crops, natural fungal toxins in organic. The only real difference is that the former are cheaper to grow - and this takes us to the heart of the issue, according to 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 the 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."

And this is a critical point. The idea that natural is good and anything else is bad has become deeply rooted in society. Yet the belief is flawed, for it implies the living world exists merely to provide humans with bounteous amounts of produce. Nature is a shopping trolley created for our exploitation, in other words. But fields are not natural and crops are not natural. They are the end result of thousands of years of hard work and experimentation by human beings. And that is why agricultural produce is good for us today.

This point, stressed by Leyser, is important because of the organic movement's hostility to agricultural innovation. Major changes are required in the ways we farm our nation. We need to cut our use of nitrogen fertilisers because their manufacture is linked to high carbon dioxide emissions and we need to play our part in limiting climate change. At the same time, we need to improve food production in Britain as the nation's population rises. Currently, there are around 61 million people living in the UK. By 2051, this figure is expected to reach 77 million: a large number of extra mouths to feed.

Turning to organic farming could help us deal with the former problem, given the restrictions it places on the use of artificial fertilisers, but that, in turn, would only cripple our ability to feed our swelling numbers - because of the low crop yields that would ensue.

One solution would be to turn to GM foods and to develop crops whose DNA has been altered so they fix their own nitrogen and so do not need large amounts of artificial fertilisers to maintain the high yields of foodstuffs we are going to need by the middle of the century. It is a sound idea. Yet it is anathema to the organic movement wedded, as it is, to its semi-religious belief that everything in nature is tickety-boo and everything that comes from the laboratory, or from years of careful experiment by men and women, is somehow tainted and must therefore be rejected.

This is a flawed vision of nature and one that is increasingly at odds with the nation's needs. This does not mean to say that organic farming has no role to play in the stewardship of Britain. As Professor Jules Pretty of Essex University and a UN agricultural adviser says, the practice - with pesticide restrictions - has clearly been of benefit to the country in terms of maintaining biodiversity and encouraging animal welfare.

"However, there are plenty of standard farms that now score well on these issues," he added.

Horizons are shifting, in other words, and the organic movement needs to think about moving on. It is only natural, after all.

Robin McKie is science editor of the Observer