It is mystifying to me that organic food is still widely seen as healthier, more sustainable and, most absurdly, safer than non-organic food.
Following the publication of part two of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy last week, the organic movement was quick to suggest that organic food and farming offer a way to achieve the strategy’s vision. ‘The recommendations of the National Food Strategy offer genuine hope that by embracing agroecological and organic farming, and adopting a healthier and more sustainable diet, we can address the climate, nature and health crises,’ said Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association, Britain’s most vocal organic lobbying organisation. Browning also highlighted the strategy’s recognition of the Soil Association’s ‘Food for Life’ programme — essentially a vehicle to promote greater procurement and use of organic food in schools and hospitals.
The trouble is that scientific evidence indicates that the food safety risks of eating organic food are considerably greater than those of eating non-organic food. This is primarily because organic crop production relies on animal faeces as a fertiliser, an obvious vector for potentially lethal pathogens such as E.coli, but also because organic crops can be prone to harmful mycotoxins as a result of inadequate control of crop pests and diseases.
In his 2019 book The Myths About Nutrition Science, food and nutrition adviser David Lightsey cites an analysis of US Food and Drug Administration food safety recall data by Academics Review — a group of scientists dedicated to challenging anti-science claims — which showed that ‘organic foods are four to eight times more likely to be recalled than conventional foods for safety issues like bacterial contamination’.
Sadly the recall system is not always 100 per cent effective in protecting human health. In 2011, a major food poisoning outbreak in Europe which affected nearly 4,000 people, killing 53, was ultimately traced to organically grown bean sprouts from a farm in Germany that had been contaminated by a virulent E.coli