Consuming Issues: Is organic food worth the extra money?

The beetroot in Tesco looked the same: small, peeled and purple. Yet the organic pack was £1 and the other 67p. More of the organic packs – produced without chemical fertilisers and pesticides – had been left on the shelf. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many shoppers have decided it's not worth paying more for chemical-free food while times are hard and organic sales have slumped since 2008. To revive the £1.8bn movement, the Organic Trade Board has begun a £2m advertising campaign, "Why I Love Organic", in magazines such as OK! and Heat. Should shoppers be swayed by its claims about naturalness, taste and animal welfare?

Although supporters say buying organic fruit and veg seasonally and direct from farmers can be cost-effective, prices in supermarkets are often at least 50 per cent more. As far as taste goes, most shoppers would struggle to tell the difference between organic and conventional produce of the same variety.

The style sometimes matters: small artisanal producers make organic food to a high standard. Vegetable box schemes such as Abel and Cole and Riverford select varieties for taste rather than perishability and deliver from field to front door in a few days. Organic food often is tastier, but not necessarily because it is organic.

Health is more complex. Two years ago, the Food Standards Agency concluded there was "no good evidence consumption of organic food was beneficial to health in relation to nutrient content". This week, a team at Newcastle University suggested that organic milk had more beneficial fatty acids than conventional milk – again, the differences may be too small to be significant.

Organic food, though, has fewer pesticide traces. In its latest report, the Government's Pesticide Residues Committee found 23 of 349 samples of foods such as milk and peaches exceeded permitted levels. That's 6.5 per cent, or one in every 15. Unpermitted levels are not necessarily unsafe, but some academics are concerned by the cumulative effect of low doses of insecticides, particularly on pregnant women and infants.

Health may be contentious but there is no doubt organically-farmed animals have better lives than their factory-farmed counterparts. The Soil Association bans fast-growing breeds of chickens that develop leg problems. Instead, its chickens have twice the lifespan and space, while organic pigs can roam outdoors most of the time, with their tails, because docking is banned.

Intensively farmed, heavily sprayed prairies have been a disaster for nature. Over the past 50 years, most of England's hedgerows have been ripped out; more than half of farmland birds such as skylarks, lapwings and linnets have disappeared; and numbers of farmland butterflies, which make up most of the UK's 57 species, have plummeted by 42 per cent in the past 20 years.

As the RSPB points out, nearly all studies show that organic farms have more wildlife. But does this abundance justify their lower yields? Researchers at Leeds University reported last year that organic farms typically had 12 per cent more plants and animals than similar conventional farms, but grew 55 per cent fewer crops. This meant they could not be promoted as the best method of agriculture, said Professor Tim Benton, who led the research.

Certainly, organic yields are lower than conventional ones, though organic farmers dispute the 55 per cent figure. Three years ago, the University of Michigan concluded that organic farming could produce enough food to feed the current world population "and potentially an even larger population" without using more land.

Given that one third of food in Britain is wasted, and the national diet consists of too much meat and too little fresh produce, the wider adoption of a less resource-intensive, healthier diet could make up for any loss in yields from organic farming. There is already enough food in the world; poverty, not lack of food, causes one billion people to be undernourished. One billion are overweight.

Overall, organic is likely to be a little healthier and tastier than conventional. At every checkout shoppers vote for how they want farm animals to be treated, how the landscape should look, whether wildlife should thrive or disappear. Buying organic is a vote for family farms and hedgerows, for fields and wildflowers and for birds, bees and butterflies. Romantic maybe, but right.

m.hickman@independent.co.uk

Independent Partners; Do you need financial advice on your investments, pension or insurance? Book a free consultation with an independent Financial Adviser at VouchedFor.co.uk

News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

    Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor