Professor David Conning, director general of the British Nutrition Foundation and a medical toxicologist, said the belief that organic produce contained fewer toxic substances was wrong. 'I can find no evidence at all that organic farm produce is safer, nutritionally better or tastier.'
Organic farming could only be justified on the grounds that it was better for the environment than conventional, intensive farming, he said. 'The issue of safety is a non-issue. The issue is the protection of the environment.'
In a debate organised by the Ciba Foundation on organic farming, Professor Conning criticised those who suggested to the public that organic food was somehow healthier. 'They are led to fear something for which there is no basis. I wouldn't call it a confidence trick, it's just ignorance.'
Christopher Stopes, a supporter of organic farming from the Elm Farm Research Centre at Newbury, Berkshire, said there was evidence that organic produce is healthier for people as well as the environment. It caused fewer nitrates to leach into the soil; resulted in lower levels of soil erosion and left little or no pesticide residues. He said that there were many organic farmers making a decent living out of the business.
Michael Murphy, an economist at the Department of Land Economy at Cambridge University, said that organic farming contributed a fraction of 1 per cent to the total output of British farming. Few organic farmers were making anywhere near the profits of conventional farmers and some were making considerable losses. If all farmers were to produce food organically, the cost to the nation would be between pounds 20bn and pounds 40bn a year, he said. 'We've overestimated the social benefits of organic farming and underestimated the social costs.'
Teresa Wickham, director of corporate affairs at Safeway supermarkets, said that about 2 per cent of customers actively sought organic produce. A larger proportion would prefer to buy organic if it was cheaper and more widely available.