Supermarkets full of choice - but at the price of staying 'inorganic'

Organic farming began as an ideology in the 1920s with the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who wanted to capture "cosmic forces" through moonlight and the mystic qualities of soil. He saw the purified nature of artificial fertilisers as an abomination, whereas the stench of manure was something quite spiritual.

Organic farming began as an ideology in the 1920s with the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who wanted to capture "cosmic forces" through moonlight and the mystic qualities of soil. He saw the purified nature of artificial fertilisers as an abomination, whereas the stench of manure was something quite spiritual.

Organic food has since become inextricably linked with all that is good, wholesome and safe in life. In fact, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that organic food is any more nutritious than its "inorganic" cousin. Meanwhile, there is abundant data to link some of the worst cases of poisoning with food produced by traditional, organic methods.

The very word "organic" is synonymous with health and well-being, when in fact it merely means that the produce is derived from living organisms. Organic chemistry is therefore about carbon-containing substances produced by animals and plants. Inorganic chemicals lack a carbon component but can be just as natural as organic chemicals.

Even organic food is rich in inorganic toxins. Every day we each eat about a quarter of a teaspoon of chemicals that are known to have a potential ability to cause cancer. Something near 99.99 per cent of these toxins, however, are quite natural and are produced by the crops we grow as a form of chemical defence against insects and other pests.

Spreading manure on a field is good farming practice and improves soil structure but it also carries a greater risk of food poisoning than spraying with the recommended amounts of agrochemicals. One of the most dangerous organisms that can contaminate food is E.coli 0157, which lives happily in the gut of many farmyard animals. Several outbreaks of E.coli 0157, some causing the deaths of children, have been linked with organic strawberries, lettuce and home-made organic goats' cheese.

Many organic products, such as nuts, also carry a higher risk of being contaminated with other toxins, such as that produced by a fungus called aspergillus. This poison, called aflatoxin, kills many hundreds of people in the world each year. It is also one the most potent carcinogens in nature.

The abundance and variety of food we can buy on supermarket shelves owes little to organic farming methods, and a lot to the artificial chemicals available to farmers. We all want cheap food but we also have to realise there is a price attached. Modern farming methods have produced the safest, most nutritious food in history yet it does so at the expense of the wildlife in the countryside.

Sir John Krebs is right about organic food being a rip-off. As an expert on biodiversity, and the effects of agricultural intensification on wildlife, he also knows what the real costs are of us all wanting our cake and eating it.

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