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by Lisa Saffron(more info)

listed in organic food, originally published in issue 31 - August 1998

This column is the last I'll write for the foreseeable future. I've written fifteen columns with topics ranging from arsenic to xeno-oestrogens. But I've kept coming back to one topic – the health benefits of organic food, a fascinating topic not because of the facts but because of what it reveals about different approaches to risk taking. For me, it illustrates the gulf between a public health perspective and an environmentalist position. As one environmentalist complained to another, "Why is it that environmentalists are always talking about cancer but people in the cancer field rarely talk about the environment?" The following dialogue between a believer in the health benefits of organic food and a sceptic may answer that.

Believer: Let me explain why organic food is so important to good health.

There is a vital relationship between the health of the soil and the health of everything to which the soil gives life plants, animals and people.

Organic agriculture collaborates with Nature to nurture and maintain the soil, thus producing food able to sustain and promote health. Food produced by conventional agriculture is less vital and less able to promote health.

Sceptic: Of all the ways I can achieve good health, how important is it that I eat organic food?

Believer: It's not enough by itself. You also have to eat a healthy diet, following all the guidelines about fruit and vegetables, unprocessed food, fat, sugar, salt, and so on

Sceptic: I'm trying to do that, having been convinced by the overwhelming evidence that diet and health are inextricably linked. But I don't find it easy to change to a healthy diet. Being realistic, I'm only going to make changes which I feel highly motivated to make. Why should I be motivated to eat organic food?

Believer: With organic food, you are avoiding pesticide and nitrate residues which could increase your risk of cancer and who knows what else.

Sceptic: That's not true. Nitrates are the natural form of nitrogen absorbed by plants from the soil, released by both organic and artificial fertilisers. And plants make their own chemical pesticides. They have had to evolve ways to defend themselves from pests long before people developed synthetic chemical pesticides. Some of these natural pesticides are carcinogens, others are deadly toxins.

Believer: But we have evolved defence systems to cope with natural toxins in food, especially plant-foods that have been around for millennia. We haven't had time to evolve defence systems to detoxify synthetic chemicals that have only been around for the last few decades.

Sceptic: Our defence systems are non-specific. They have evolved to cope with any foreign chemical, whether natural or synthetic. As long as our systems are not overloaded with too much, we have the ability to process chemicals so that they can be excreted or stored in a non-toxic form.

Believer: On top of the natural toxins we are exposed to, the cumulative effect of all the synthetic chemicals in food, contaminated water, and polluted air must add to the toxic burden and the stress on our bodies' defences.

Sceptic: It's a matter of scale. If you add one drop of water to a glass that is already half full of water, you're hardly going to make it spill over.

Believer: Not enough is known. Every day I read about serious risks to consumers from intensive farming methods. I'd rather err on the side of caution and not take a risk. I expect my food to be safe and I'm willing to pay more to be sure it's safe.

Sceptic: You seem to believe that it's possible to avoid any risk and that it's worth going to any lengths to avoid even the most remote and unlikely risk to health

Believer: No, you don't understand. Some risks are unavoidable, like eating foods containing natural toxins. I can accept taking risks of that kind.

Others can be avoided, like eating foods containing pesticides. The pesticides sprayed on crops are synthetic chemicals they're not natural.

They wouldn't be there if people didn't use them and I have no choice or control over it. Peeling doesn't remove them all and why should I have to cut away the skin which has the most fibre and vitamins? Only farmers and the agrochemical industry benefit from the use of pesticides while consumers bear the risks. It doesn't matter to me how large the risk is or whether it's been proven in scientific studies. It's an unacceptable risk to my health.

Sceptic: Of all the serious risks to health that I face in the course of my lifetime, the risk from pesticide residues on food is so remote that I can't get worked up about it. Like most people, I don't like change and I'm not going to go to great lengths to prevent some calamity in the far distant future that is extremely unlikely ever to happen. Give me a better reason to eat organic food.

Believer: I know from my own experience. I eat only organic food and I haven't been ill for at least 20 years, despite the stressful life that I lead.

Sceptic: I eat only conventionally grown food and I haven't been ill either, despite the stressful life I lead. Perhaps our shared good health is due to the fact that we both eat lots of fruit and vegetables and are physically active.

Believer: I've come across numerous studies showing that organic food is nutritionally superior to conventional food - that it has more vitamins, minerals, and greater vitality.

Sceptic: I've come across even more studies showing no difference.

Believer: I believe that there is a nutritional difference but we will never know until more studies have been done. At this stage, no one can conclude that there is no difference.

Sceptic: True, but nothing in the research leads me to think that there might be a difference or that if there were, it would be a big enough difference to matter to health. It seems perverse to continue believing something so unlikely to be true.

Believer: By reducing everything to its individual components, science produces distorted and irrelevant conclusions. We know very little about the inter-connectedness of all things. Good health occurs only when there is a balance in the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual life. Eating organically is a great help in getting people back to optimum health and keeping them well.

Sceptic: Good health can be achieved whether or not you eat organic food. I think the benefits to the environment are more persuasive reasons for supporting organic agriculture, rather than far-fetched and unsubstantiated claims about health.


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About Lisa Saffron

Lisa Saffron is a health researcher and writer with a particular interest in the effect of environmental pollution on health. She has a Masters in Environmental Technology and a first degree in microbiology. She is committed to providing accurate and accessible information. Lisa also wrote a regular column in Positive Health magazine.

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