Government figures suggest that up to a quarter of the foods we eat may contain detectable amounts of pesticide residues, and that around 1 in 100 foods contain more than the legally permitted level. There is justified concern about the potential effects of repeated exposure to this cocktail of chemicals. One report in the scientific journal, Nature, showed that combinations of 2 or 3 common pesticides, at the low levels we commonly find in our foods, are 1600 times more powerful than the individual chemicals on their own.
What does organic mean?
Organic farmers believe that healthy food comes from healthy soil. They work to build up long-term fertility in their soils. Plant and animal wastes are recycled onto the land. Seaweed or rock powders are used to balance the mineral content, and crop rotation is used to increase microbial life through minimal ploughing and using ground cover-crops. Organic farmers also create and help to sustain more wildlife habitats and utilise these as pest controls. They plant rather than remove trees and hedges, dig rather than drain ponds and meadows and the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides, growth promoters, antibiotics and feed additives is prohibited.
What are the benefits?
When you choose organic produce you are choosing to avoid the residues of chemicals that are commonly used to promote crop growth and those used to protect them from bugs – if a food crop is not suitable for the bugs to eat, why should it be good enough for you? Many of the pesticides are designed to kill useful organisms such as ladybirds and bees, and many of these chemicals work by poisoning the nervous system in a similar way to military nerve gas. Current testing does not investigate the long-term effects of low doses of chemicals, or the cocktail effect that comes from eating a variety of foods. However, due to ground water and atmospheric pollution, it is not possible to guarantee any British-produced food completely chemical-free. Agrochemicals from farmlands are in our rivers and are building up in water systems. Organic foods are also free from genetic modification and irradiation. Organic foods have been shown to be higher in nutrients and usually taste better too, and organic farming methods are better for the future. They help to maintain soil fertility and farmland that is able to provide healthy foods for many years to come.
Why does organic cost more?
On average organic produce costs 20% more. There are several reasons for this. The farms tend to be smaller and rely on crop diversity as well as crop rotation. They often use specialised machinery, but less of it, and this coupled with more labour leads to increased costs. After harvesting, conventional farmers rely on chemicals to control pests and moulds, however organic farmers use cold storage, which comes at a higher cost. Organic produce fails to benefit from the economy of scale of conventional food distribution. For those who are not able to afford organic food all the time, it is not an excuse to skip fruits and vegetables, it is far better to eat non-organic produce than none at all.
How can I be sure it’s organic?
Organic food is protected by law. It is an offence to market a food a food as organic if it has not passed a rigorous series of inspections from the farm to the shop, and received full certification from a recognised organisation. Look for the Soil Association symbol, see www.soilassociation.org for further information.
Plastics, pesticides and the threat to health and fertility:
Persistent pollutants (DDT, PCB’s, Dioxins and Phthalates etc) and other man-made chemicals concentrate in the food chain and are deposited in our body cells. They may take years to break down and can mimic our own sex hormones. This is why they are also known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals. Fertility in both men and women may be particularly sensitive to hormonal pollution. It is impossible to avoid these entirely, but we can certainly limit our exposure. The best way is to avoid eating animal fat (chemicals are often stored in fat cells) and choose organic meat and dairy produce to avoid the added hormones and growth promoters. Farmed fish, fish oils, fish liver oils and algae products (Chlorella and Spirulina) should be avoided unless the manufacturer can give a declaration that there are no detectable toxins. Avoid wood preservatives, fly sprays, flea collars, stain repellent and flame-retardants that are used on furniture and carpets – ensure the room is well-ventilated and do not use man-made air fresheners, choose an essential oil that suits you and your mood and use that in a burner.
The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 foods
Every year, the environmental working group compiles a list of the worst offending 12 foods for chemical residue that you should always try to buy organic. They also make a list of the clean 15 foods, which doesn`t mean that they are chemical free but are the least likely to have residue. These lists really help you focus your priorities for which foods should be bought organically and which foods aren`t necessary. You can find the latest list here: www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php