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ISIS Report 26/08/09

UK Food Standards Agency Study Proves Organic Food Is Better

The results in its recent study appears to prove organic food is likely to be better than conventional food by a probability of 99.95 percent Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

A fully referenced version of this report has been submitted to the Food Standards Agency, and is available for download here

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“A cancerous conspiracy to poison your faith in organic food”[1] was how food writer Joanna Blythman referred to the latest report of UK Food Standards Agency (FSA that claimed to find no nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods, bringing to a climax the barrage of criticisms that greeted its publication online at the end of July 2009 [3-5].

The FSA report is surprising, and contradicts a host of recent studies documenting significant differences in antioxidants, vitamins and other micronutrients, all in favour of organic food that we have reviewed in our own report (see Chapter 20 of [6] Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , ISIS publication). Not to mention a major study published March 2008 [7] by scientists of The Organic Center (TOC) in the United States, which finds that organic food is superior to conventional in more than 60 percent of proper “matched pair” comparisons, i.e., with conventional and organic crops grown side by side at the same time. The TOC group is updating its review to include 15 studies that have appeared since.

My own reading of the FSA report uncovered its startling result - which seems to have escaped the attention of the authors of the report and  the FSA - actually in favour of organic food, despite all the methodological biases against such a finding. The FSA has long had an anti-organic policy, and this latest attempt at discrediting organic food may turn out to be the strongest endorsement of organic that anyone could have made.

Methods designed to exclude authentic studies and inflate variation

The review appears designed not to find in favour of organic in many respects. It only looked at research papers with abstracts written in English, and excluded the results of nearly half the papers found because they failed to mention the organic certifying body. That would leave out all academic studies potentially capable of providing the most rigorous and authentic data.  On top of that, it ignored more up-to-date research from the European Union published in April this year, despite knowing this research was due to be published [5]. 

What it did include were farm surveys and ‘basket studies’ of food that can be purchased from retailers, where the crops were not at all comparable, as they were not matched pairs (see earlier). To make matters worse, some studies included were more than 50 years old, when nutrients in a variety of foods were at significantly higher concentrations than they are today, as documented for the UK [8] and in the United States [9]. Thus, the variations in both conventional and organic samples were artificially inflated, and the chance of detecting significant differences correspondingly diminished.

Results still came out clearly in favour of organic food

Despite these methodological flaws, the review did detect three highly significant differences out of 11 nutrients that favoured the organic: a decrease in nitrate of 6.7 percent (p = 0.003), and increases in phosphate of 8.1 percent (p = 0.009) and titratable acidity (an indication of ripeness in fruit) of 6.8 percent (p = 0.01).

However, all eight remaining nutrients – vitamin C, phenolic compounds, magnesium, calcium, potassium, zinc, total soluble solids, and copper - appeared positive in favour of organic, even though they did not reach statistical significance. If there were truly no significant differences between organic and conventional, one would expect half of the difference to be in favour of conventional and half in favour of organic; the probability of getting 11 out of 11 in favour of organic, according to the ‘sign test’ in statistics, is (0.5)11,  giving p <0.0005, which is miniscule. We can therefore firmly reject the null hypothesis that there is no difference between organic and conventional food. Contrary to what is claimed by the report and the FSA, organic is really better, despite all attempts at fudging the issue.

The results are fully in line with successive reviews and studies [6, 7] after all.

A lot missing in the FSA review

The review is very unbalanced as far as organic agriculture is concerned, and extremely worrying if it is to be used by the UK government as a guide to its food policy; especially as an excuse to promote genetically modified (GM) food and feed.  The UK government is reported to be investing up to £ 100 m in GM research projects in the developing world [10], when it has singularly failed to convince its own citizens to accept GM food and feed.

The FSA review specifically did not look at levels of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides or their proven negative impacts on human and animal health. It did not deal with the environmental consequences of conventional agricultural practices in reducing biodiversity, increasing soil erosion, destroying soil fertility and depleting water. Nor did it address animal welfare, social benefits to local communities, or the significant contributions organic localised agriculture can make to mitigating climate change, all of which we have documented in detail [6, 10] (Organic Agriculture and Localized Food & Energy Systems for Mitigating Climate Change, SiS 40). And our findings have been fully confirmed in other important publications such as the International Assessment on Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development [11], representing the scientific consensus across the globe that small scale local organic agro-ecological farming is the way ahead to sustainable food production, in which GM has no place.

There are 13 comments on this article so far. Add your comment
Dr Raymond Auerbach Comment left 28th September 2009 14:02:07
The FSA study is clearly biased against organics. It does also show convincingly that organic food is more healthy than conventional, despite what it says it found. But let us be fair - in Appendix 12 of the paper as available for download on the FSA website (organicreviewappendices.pdf), all of the comparisons are given, and this confirms what Donald Davis and Elizabeth Allen state. However, this does not explain why FSA has gone out of its way to discredit the far more rigorous comparative study by The Organic Center ( "State of science review: Nutritional superiority of organic food". TOC used matched pairs of products from similar fields, rather than random comparisons of often obsolete varieties. As mentioned by others, it also does not explain how they could ignore the Quality Low Input Food study which published a few months after the FSA "cut-off" (how convenient, even though they knew it was coming, and they only published their paper in July 2009!!) For the excellent comparative scientific work of Prof Carlo Leifert and colleagues, see which leaves no doubt as to the superiority of organic food in certain areas. The study also cautions against blanket generalisations: of course, some parameters will sometimes be better in conventional, there is considerable variation in food quality parameters. But the chances of the FSA study being genuinely unbiased do not need to be statistically calculated - it is quite clear that there is zero chance that they would willingly publish a study which showed organics in a good light. They had to be virtually forced to concede in June 2007 that organic milk has higher levels of a-linolenic acid (ALA), and only after four letters from Dr Kathryn Ellis, and a subsequent workshop did they change their website to reflect this, still arguing all the while that the evidence that ALA was good for health was still debatable, and she also had to push home the evidence on superior levels of total n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in organic milk. FSA pushes the big business agenda, and organic farming is inconvenient to this agenda. We will not get unbiased science from them, but we will get them to retract blatantly unscientific findings if we challenge them long and hard enough, and this we need to do in the name of truth. But let us not fall into their bad habits while we do this.
Donald R Davis, Ph.D. Comment left 28th August 2009 16:04:51
Worthy Point Damaged by False Assumption. It is wrong to assume that "all eight remaining nutrients...appeared positive in favour of organic." Dangour coauthor Elizabeth Allen e-mailed me that "vitamin C and calcium were higher in conventionally produced crops." It remains true that the "Results still came out clearly in favour of organic food," but not as one-sidedly as stated. This point is strongest for magnesium, zinc, and potassium, for which the trends were closest to reaching statistical significance (P = 0.10, 0.11 and 0.28, respectively). The P-values for the other nutrients, including vitamin C and calcium, were too large to merit attention (near 0.5 to 0.9).
Peter Saunders Comment left 30th August 2009 08:08:43
It’s amazing that Donald Davis had to email the authors to find out which direction the differences were in. That should have been in the paper. I wonder whether it was just sloppiness – or was it that the authors did not want to draw attention to the fact that organic was better in almost all the nutrients they were measuring? Either way, it’s bad science. If organic crops were no better than conventional at taking up nutrients, then the probability that out of 11 nutrients measured, conventional crops should do better in two or fewer cases is 0.033. The result is thus statistically significant, and the FSA’s own data still confirm that organic food is better.
tony villar Comment left 27th August 2009 08:08:27
Big business==big money. GM foods == Big business
Rory Short Comment left 15th September 2009 10:10:17
I agree with Peter above, it essential that we,the public, agitate until measures are in place to guarantee the true independence of people who are placed on regulatory boards by government otherwise as the regulatory boards will be hi-jacked by the corporates in search of profits and to hell with the public.
Dr Wayne Saul Comment left 13th September 2009 20:08:44
Lets concede that this dilemma is unlikely to change anytime soon: Economics and corporatocracy will continue to goad higher authorities into implementing policies that favour the former and not the consumer (me, you and us all). If we continue to sit on our hands waiting and hoping for consensus of opinion, it may be too late to save our food industry, whether it be from GMO- crops or conventional farming methods. We are very fortunate to find independant scientists and open minded journalists staving off some of the franchised; albeit presently this has not produced the momentum required to filter through to the public domain. The consumer is generally too preoccupied with "its" own existential concerns that it does not have the time to peruse through such studies that enable "it" to become well informed. Consequently the pressures being exerted on decision making authority is too feeble to enforce any changes (from study bias to food labeling). The only way forward from here is to better educate the media on the outcomes of such studies. Being cognizant of the consumer costs to a burgeoning vitamin industry, it shouldn't take too much nudging to turn each informed consumer into an individual who questions and who cares. Hereafter, we will make it our prerogative to ensure the following: a) better funding of such studies, b) better experimental methodologies in such studies, c) full public disclosure (via the media) of the outcomes of such studies, and finally d) implementing policy change (if required) at the top of our political "food chain". Who here is willing to help?
Prince Pieray C. Peter Odor Comment left 27th August 2009 14:02:19
To all those who value God, religion, morality, human, plant and animal lives, long life, and bio-sciences, I would ask you not to go on with the deliberate distracting and delaying tactics of the anti-God, anti-religion, anti-morality, anti-Life, anti-bioscience, and evil people who promote the science of the creation of pathogens, and the production of diseases and death, by arguing on constitution, composition, equivalence, or same. The issues are whether any method for producing any food is safe or scientifically/mathematically capable of producing safe foods or not, and whether any food is safe or not safe. As mathematical, physical, chemical, technological and biological scientists, and not historians, sociologists, dramatists, or clowns, our tradition, going back earlier than Rene Descartes' declaration of the nature and status of our profession as exact and precise, holds precision and exactitude as sacred and inviolable Let us preserve that tradition because of its moral religious and humanistic values, its dignity, honour, respectability, and nobility. Any food that is claimed to be safe nust be demonstrated/proved to be save to the satisfaction of everyone and not the satisfaction of the USA government and, or, its agents, namely, the USAID, USFDA, USDA, UNFAO, UNDP, WB, etc; and not to the satisfaction of those who are in the Satanic business of producing death organisms and foods, including Monsanto, Novartis, DuPont, Syngenta. Aventis, etc That is the issue, and all aguments based on or about "the same", "better than", "conventional" "composition", and "substantial equivalence" amount to theft of time, dodging the issue, and the apostleship of anti-God, anti-religion, anti-moral obligation to consumers, pro-diseases, Pro-death, radical materialism, nihilism, and evil. Prince Pieray C. Peter Odor Lagos, Nigeria
susan rigali Comment left 26th August 2009 15:03:03
One of the most important and marketable traits of organic agriculture is the flavor. It has been the basis of success in my 30 years as a professional chef.
Ivor Hughes Comment left 26th August 2009 21:09:59
Common sense directs one to the truth. The quality of our industrially produced food has been declining in a noticeable manner for over 50 years. Leather skins from gassed temperature controlled storage chambers. Over priced and from Overseas. Local produce is usually of the second grade variety, and not fit to be ruined for the export market but good enough for indigenous life forms. Thank you for all of the Science in the public interest, in the coming months I think the public at large will be flocking to the banner in ever greater numbers, as the whole face of science starts to moult.
John Newton Comment left 27th August 2009 06:06:48
Follow the money - you write that the UK government is investing one hundred million pounds in GM research - and where are all those squids coming from? Is this an indication of the spin on the research?
Peter Comment left 27th August 2009 06:06:59
As Mae Wan has pointed out, the FSA report is technically weak and has gross omissions relating to herbicides, fungicides, biodiversity etc. The question I want to raise is not from a scientific, but a behavioural angle: How come an organisation such as FSA behaves in this way? This is not unique to FSA. In another part of the world FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) has for a long time opposed detailed food labelling, including identification of micronutrients and GMO ingredients even though population surveys show that 90%+ of the population want this labelling. FSANZ has just released a report on GM corn MON 863 claiming it is "safe and wholesome"... despite other counterveiling evidence from around the world. The intent of food regulatory authorities is (or should be) to protect the health and well-being of consumers. Primarily, this means regulating the food and agricultural industries so as to protect the interests of consumers. However, this is where the process breaks down. For the principle of regulation to work, one cannot be both a regulator and a regulatee. Yet with FSANZ there are two industry CEO's on the Board, and with FSA the website shows the CEO appointed in 2008 was formerly CEO of a major food company. This is part of a wider problem, the influence of regulation by industry in its own interest. An often quoted example is the revolving door situation that exists (or existed) between the US FDA and the drug industry. It is to be noted that there is usually no counterveiling influence. Consumers do not normally organise to, or have funding for, the formation of expert committees on food, drug, telecommunications or other safety matters, and from thence lobby the government to have "their experts" placed on the regulatory board. How do we deal with this? At a tactical level, the great work of Mae Wan, Joe and others hammering back at these authorities (puppet authorities?) pointing out the faults in their work and providing valid alternatives... And at a strategic level: there needs to be driven a substantial wedge between industry and government... heading to a situation whereby (for example): - no industry representatives on regulatory bodies - all communication and representation from industry to government be on the public record from the outset - commercial in confidence be abolished other than during tendering processes after which all submissions become public This may seem far fetched, but until we start thinking this way and bringing this about, we will never solve the underlying problem.
Angelina P.Galang Comment left 28th October 2010 11:11:48
Any thinking, logical person should reject the commercialization and even the field testing of GM crops at this point because: GM foods have not been tested for long-term animal and human safety which is what should be done first and foremost. The very fact that we have the Cartageena Protocol, biosafety bodies, guidelines for disposing of experimental GM plants so as not to cause unintended damage,etc., safeguards that pro-GMers boast of - all these underscore the fact that GM crops are dangerous! Why plant them? Here in the Philippines where the University of the Philippines in Los Banos has partnered with Mahyco, a subsidiary of Monsanto to produce and commercialize Bt eggplant, ordinary eggplant is so abundant that it is sold by farmers in Pangasinan at P5.00 or a little more than $0.10 a kilo. it is mind-boggling that BT eggplant is even being considered. There is absolutely no reason to expose us consumers to the danger. GM crops will not feed the world;, GM will poison the world. There is enough food. People are hungery because they have no money to buy food. If you give them money, they will be able to buy food. Therefore, the shortage is not of food, but money to buy food.
caglarkeskin Comment left 17th February 2010 10:10:09
I live in a village and work in agriculturing. We produce organic foods and i try to read everything about them. This information is very useful for me. I also found another useful guide about organic foods;

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