Science, Society, Sustainability
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ISIS Report 27/03/03

Organic Agriculture Helps Fight Cancer

Organic agriculture largely excludes synthetic inputs - pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers – and focuses instead on long-term ecological health. The health benefits of organic foods have now been highlighted by new research: they are richer in anti-cancer chemicals. Prof. Joe Cummins reports.

A longer, fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS Members’ website . Details here .

Plant phenolics (flavonoids) are plant by-products believed to protect the plant from insect predation, bacterial and fungal infection and photo-oxidation. This same class of plant chemicals has been found to be effective in preventing cancer and heart disease, and to combat age-related neurological dysfunctions.

The main target of these plant chemicals is to protect the cell against damage caused by active oxygen radicals. Oxygen radicals are generated from exposure to oxygen that has in turn been activated by exposure to radiation, heavy metal ions and chemicals. Oxygen radicals cause cancer by damaging DNA, resulting in mutations; by activating enzymes involved in regulating cell growth; and by promoting angiogenesis (invasion of blood vessels into tumours to allow rapid growth of the tumour). Oxygen radicals are also implicated in cardiovascular disease and age-related nerve cell damage.

Conventional agriculture depends on heavy applications of chemical fertilisers, frequent spraying with chemical pesticides and irrigation. Such practices are believed to inhibit the production of flavonoids. On the contrary, organic agriculture, which eliminates the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, creates conditions favourable to the production of health-enhancing plant flavonoids.

Recent research has been carried out comparing conventional with organic and sustainable production of berries and corn; ‘sustainable’ designating farm practices that are environmentally sound. The research showed that the plant phenolics were significantly elevated in organic and sustainable produce compared with conventional production.

Earlier studies comparing organic and conventionally grown foods did not examine plant phenolics; but found that the conventionally produced foods had higher levels of nitrates and synthetic pesticides and relatively less total solids than organic foods. Animals preferred organic foods while human preferences were less clear.

A new report by Asami and coworkers published in the current issue of the Journal of Agircultural and Food Chemistry provides a long list of studies documenting the health-enhancing attributes of plant phenolics.

For example, the natural compounds had multiple functions in the cell. They affect the signal-transduction pathways of cells, and can kill cancer cells or prevent them from proliferating.

There are good prospects for controlling cancer growth with nutrients and plant chemicals. Combinations of plant chemicals could enhance cure rates for cancer when used in conjunction with standard therapies.

Flavonoids also show protective effects against cardiovascular disease and cancer in some studies, though other studies indicated no effect, and a few suggested potential harm.

Long-term oxidative stress contributes to nerve degradation and age-related diseases of the nervous system such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. And plant chemicals may be effective in combating these age-related neurological dysfunctions.

A very large body of evidence thus suggests that plant phenolics, clearly present in higher concentrations in organic than conventional foods, are effective in the fight against cancer, heart disease and age-related neurological dysfunction. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that organic agriculture gives high yields, and is more beneficial to the environment and more sustainable.

All this evidence is largely denied or ignored by advocates of genetically modified foods.

A longer, fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS Members’ website . Details here .


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