Archie Bland: Why we just can't stomach the truth about organic

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Organic food just sounds better for you. It conjures images of ruddy-cheeked farmers dusting the soil off charmingly nobbly, inimically British potatoes, and delivering them to their local Tesco in wooden boxes; wholesome, well-adjusted, tolerant cows, roaming the countryside unfettered and turning down unhealthy foods before cheerfully volunteering for a painless death. Enough people like those sorts of ideas for the industry to be worth £1.64bn in the UK.

It was curious, then, to read yesterday a news story that would seem to throw doubt on the idea that organic food is quite so wonderful. Refreshingly enough in a field in which most consumers seem to rely simply on the soothing sound of one word – organic – against the creepier overtones of another – pesticide – this story actually had hard serious evidence behind it. Scientists at Stanford University took a comprehensive look at the studies done so far on the benefits of organic food, spent four years applying rigorous statistical analysis to the data, and found… no discernible health benefit whatsoever. There's no proof it's better for you, but also no proof it isn't. There was no need for a study, on the other hand, to establish that it is eye-wateringly expensive.

Now, a lot of people who eat organic say it just tastes better, although I should like to blindfold them and see if they can really tell when I offer them a pint of delicious, chemically-enhanced milk. Also, maybe more impressively, the organic lobby will claim that consumers know just what they're after in organic food – that, as the study confirmed, it is less likely to retain traces of pesticide. But such a claim is disingenuous. People like the sound of less pesticide because they think pesticide sounds dangerous, not because of some obscure moral objection.

I don't expect any of this to make the slightest difference, though. The organic steam train is way too far along for any mere synoptic study to derail it. That's frustrating enough, when people are parting with so much of their money for an imprimatur that doesn't mean what a lot of them think it means.

Worse still is the marketing blather that organic has brought with it; everything advertised as if it was made by an elderly couple living next to a bubbling brook, and everything being bloody NATURAL, or if not natural at least part of NATURE'S HARVEST, or ENERGY BOOSTING, or LOCALLY SOURCED WHERE POSSIBLE, and all of it also being NOT NECESSARILY ANY BETTER FOR YOU AS A RESULT. Organic food, you have a lot to answer for. And you're not even doing me any good.

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