Organic food no healthier and obscures ethical debate

That organic food is no healthier than factory farmed food should not be any great surprise.

The idea that organic food is healthier comes from a form of common sense – it seems closer to nature and further from big corporations – rather than any strong evidence. And so it appeals to those who mistrust big corporations and find the myth that natural is good appealing. The organic food industry has, like the alternative medicines industry, shied away from robust research into health benefits (and disbenefits).

Meanwhile many people choose organic food not because they believe it to be healthier, but because they associate it with other good things. It’s almost certainly true that organic food has prompted many people to question where their food comes from and how it’s produced. This is a very good thing: learning about factory farming tipped me over into giving up meat.

Yet this ignores businesses that have used going organic to provide cover for intensive farming and the occasional organic food scare.

Food businesses can take a number of routes to being seen as ethical. Cadbury owned Green & Black’s ethical reputation is entirely based upon being organic (only one of their chocolate bars is Fairtrade). Meanwhile you’ll struggle to find a reference to organic food in the Co-operative’s discussion of food ethics, but all of their own brand chocolate is Fairtrade.

Chocolate is a luxury good and it’s more important to me that those who produce are paid fairly than that they farm organically. But Fairtrade will rarely be the cheapest route to being seeing as ethical; wages are a major cost to any business, even one that pays a pittance. Green & Black’s may feel that being organic has earned them so many ethical brownie points they need do no more.

The over use of pesticides and fertilisers, organic’s primary concern, is an important issue especially in developing countries and the Soil Association has widened its brief to include animal welfare. However, over emphasis on organic food still retards our progress toward sustainable farming methods that will feed the whole world (not just the middle classes resident in the wealthy West) and the reduction of food miles.

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