We pay for organic food because of a lack of trust

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Anyone who pays extra for organic food on the grounds that they know it is better for them is misguided. But Sir John Krebs, the head of the government Food Standards Agency, also misses the point when he declares that consumers are not getting value for money "if they think they're buying food with extra nutritional quality or extra safety". He is only right when he goes on to say: "We don't have the evidence to support those claims."

Anyone who pays extra for organic food on the grounds that they know it is better for them is misguided. But Sir John Krebs, the head of the government Food Standards Agency, also misses the point when he declares that consumers are not getting value for money "if they think they're buying food with extra nutritional quality or extra safety". He is only right when he goes on to say: "We don't have the evidence to support those claims."

The point is not that organic food is definitely better for you but that it is less likely to be harmful. It is not a matter of proven benefits, but of insuring against the risk of unforeseen dangers, with BSE as the classical case. On any cool assessment of probabilities, as our science editor argues today, the difference in the health risks between organic and conventional (inorganic?) food is so small as to be hardly measurable in price terms. Indeed, in some specific cases, such as the risk of aflatoxins in organic peanuts, the benefits lie in the other direction. Nor is there any evidence that organic food tastes better, although it may taste better than the cheapest conventional equivalent.

There is an entirely separate argument for organic farming, which is that intensive agriculture tends to poison the countryside and reduce the variety of plant and animal life. But there is no reason why the individual consumer should bear the cost of preserving the environment. A government with a thought-through green policy would ensure that the food industry, and all its consumers, bore the true cost of polluting and degrading the environment.

The premium commanded by organic food is largely based, therefore, on subjective factors. This has disturbing implications for Sir John Krebs. Although some of the price difference may be explained by simple anti-science irrationalism, a lot of it reflects a lack of trust in official regulation. People are prepared to pay more for organic food because they prefer to trust the Soil Association, the main certifying body for organic produce, rather than Sir John's new Food Standards Agency.

Given the recent history of the Ministry of Agriculture's oversight of beef and farmed salmon, this is understandable. Sir John would perhaps be better advised to concentrate his efforts on building public confidence in his agency, before he issues further dismissive pronouncements to the effect that those of us who buy organic are wasting our money.

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