Surprise, surprise …organic is better.

“How we farm can affect the quality of the food we eat” proclaims the Soil Association webpage. It astounds me that this isn’t obvious, but then we’ve had children visit organic farms who honestly believe semi-skimmed milk comes from a ‘different kind of cow’. Sadly farming is still very disconnected from food for many.

The idea that a quality connection exists is actually as old as it is unsurprising. When not striding around their farms in plus-fours, the founders of the Soil Association were considering the link between soil health, farming methods and human health as far back as 1946. Historically, the difficulty for those who’ve advocated closed system – or what we now call ‘organic’ farming has been proving this relationship and the last six years haven’t exactly helped.

Since 2008 we’ve only seen significant media coverage around two meta-analysis, one from the London School of Medicine, one from Stanford in the US. Both had questionable methodologies, both concluding little or no significant difference between organic and non-organic. With the media seeming to delight in the idea that we might be wasting our money, oddly the differences highlighted in certain vitamins, bacterial contamination, and levels of beneficial fatty acids somehow got lost in the tidal wave of ‘told you so’ headlines.

Something better was clearly needed. Fortunately by 2009 funding from the EU kick started a four year academic quest to address the issue properly. Taking results from 343 previous published papers (nearly twice as many as in any previous study) and with data made publically available on-line, the new analysis from Newcastle University was significantly more robust.

The findings from the study felt like a final affirmation of so much that those of us who have seen organic farming in practice have felt for so long must be true. When plants grow at their own speed on rich soil full of complex biological processes and without chemical support, they spend time working on their own ‘immune systems’. In other words, without pesticides and with the right nutrients, they produce chemicals that are bad for bugs, but thought to be very good for us. The study concluded – among other things – that organically grown crops on average contained more of these key antioxidants, which include phenolic compounds, flavanones, flavanols and anthocyanins. In some cases they contained 69% more!

Along with obviously much, much lower levels of pesticides, the same crops also show lower levels of other undesirables, such as cadmium (48% less) and nitrogen. Cadmium is a by-product of chemical fertiliser production and unlike other metals, you can’t excrete cadmium. Once it’s in you, it stays in you, so a good one for us all to avoid.

The sceptics and those with vested interest won’t be easily silenced, so we’ll need many more studies to get closer to proving once and for all that how we farm, not only benefits wildlife and mitigates climate change, but also affects the quality of our food. In the meantime, please join the Soil Association. Healthier soil might mean healthier plants… and a healthier you.

By Lee Holdstock, Soil Association