Anti-organic, moi?

I felt almost nostalgic seeing John Krebs having a go at organic on last week’s IQ2US debate in New York (see story). It was just like the old days. One minute the former head of the Food Standards Agency was flamboyantly declaring he was “absolutely not anti-organic”, the next he was launching into what must have sounded to most people like a ten minute attack on organics’ values, products and science base.

On this side of the Atlantic we’ve heard it all before. But two things however did stand out for me. First was John Krebs’s comment: “Whenever you look at the (scientific) evidence, you have to ask where is it coming from, and why they are saying it”. And that, I admit, is exactly what I would do, congenitally sceptical journalist that I am. But I wondered shouldn’t a scientist be looking first and foremost at the quality of the evidence, the size of the study, how well designed it is and so on?

The inference seemed to be that research commissioned by the organic industry, or organic-friendly organizations, was likely to be unreliable or biased. But in reality who other than the organic industry is motivated to commission the research that regulators such as the FSA and ASA insist is needed to support even the mildest marketing claim?

Which leads me to the second eyebrow-raising comment. When Krebs was pressing his point that “overall, there is no difference nutritionally between organic and conventional food” (did I detect a determined clinging to the word ‘overall’?) he referred to the One Million Women Study. This, he said, had shown no evidence of any health benefits from eating an organic diet.

Back in 2003, when he was FSA chairman, John Krebs staged a seminar on organic food — finally yielding to sustained pressure from food and health campaigners. Addressing the seminar he explained why it would be virtually impossible for any study to deliver meaningful data about the nutritional benefits of organic over conventional (or vice versa). For one thing it would have to be conducted over a period of decades before any useful conclusion could be reached. Then you’d need to deliver an organic food box every single morning to hundreds or thousands of participants for the entire duration of the study to have any chance of ensuring they were eating a genuinely organic diet. In other words, it wasn’t worth the organic sector even dreaming about doing the type of study needed. It wasn’t going to happen.

Which made me wonder just how instructive the One Million Women Study could really be on the subject of an organic diet, given that its main focus is to examine the effects of hormone replacement therapy in women over 50. On the other hand if you’re casting around for something to bash the organic industry over the head with, well, it’s probably as good as any other blunt weapon.

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.