How we farm matters

17 July, 2014

The organic world has been celebrating a rare ‘win’ this week.

A new analysis has found that, compared to conventionally grown crops, organic crops contain higher levels of certain antioxidants, lower levels of pesticides and lower levels of the heavy metal cadmium.

According to the scientists, eating organic food could boost a person’s antioxidant intake by up to 40% – the equivalent of two portions of fruits or vegetables a day and therefore makes a “meaningful” contribution to human nutrition.

This study focused mainly on fruits, vegetable and grains (as well as baby foods, wine and seed oils). Had the authors also included dairy products in their study we would be celebrating the fact, as an earlier study found, that organic milk has a healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids as well as higher levels of other health-promoting fatty acids, protein and antioxidants compared to conventionally produced milk.

The media coverage has been remarkably positive and we should celebrate results like this, though not all the findings of the current study were so unequivocal. Like all the best studies this one opens up many more questions than it answers (why, for instance, were levels of other nutrients not higher as well?).

But the really crucial questions the study provokes are about farming and food production – and these have been largely lost in the glare of the media spotlight.

We have long allowed ourselves to be deluded by the notion – promoted mainly by proponents of high tech, intensive monoculture farming – that all methods of farming are pretty much equivalent in terms of the crop you get at the end.

What makes one farming method superior over another, we are told is yield. In other words we have for many years focused on quantity over quality.

The problem is that farming doesn’t happen in a laboratory or vacuum where yield is the sole measure of success. Intensive monoculture farming can produce big yields, but the costs, which fall outside of the realm of how many and how big your oats or your apples or your tomatoes are, are big as well.

Conventional farmers are caught on a vicious treadmill. They add chemical fertilisers to the soil in the hope of increasing crop yields. But doing so ultimately increases many plants’ susceptibility to pests. So more pesticides are used. But pesticides can also affect the soil’s capacity to sustain and generate fertility.

Pesticides such as benzene hexachloride (BHC), DDT, DDD, aldrin, lindane and heptachlor, for example, all prevent nitrogen-fixing bacteria from forming the necessary root nodules on leguminous plants (such as beans, peas, clover and alfalfa). This means less nitrogen is available for the soil so farmers use more fertilisers.

Using synthetic fertilisers to make plants grow in otherwise depleted soils has other disturbing consequences. For instance, while the fertiliser will stimulate the plant to grow in the absence of any of the usual protective nutrients they should contain, the plants will also take up more of the heavy metals in the soil such as aluminium, mercury and lead, and these, in turn, are passed on up through the food chain.

All the while, the nutritional value of our food is plummeting and people continue to go hungry in spite of the fact that globally, we currently produce enough calories to feed 14 billion people.

The yield-above-all argument is used to justify all kinds of new farming technologies, chief amongst them GM crops. And yet even here the argument falls short as there is no evidence that GM crops consistently increase yields. Indeed a recent US government report found yields from GMOs are in some cases lower.

What you may not know is that GM also interferes with the nutritional quality of food.

Studies have shown, for example, that GM soya has 12-14% lower levels of cancer-fighting isoflavones than non-GM soya.

When GM soya was compared to organic soya – it was the organic soya that had the showed the healthiest nutritional profile, with more sugars, such as glucose, fructose, sucrose and maltose, and significantly more protein and zinc and less fibre than conventional and GM soya. Organic soybeans also contained less total saturated fat and omega-6 fatty acids than conventional and GM soya.

Canola (oilseed rape) genetically engineered to contain vitamin A in its oil has been shown to have much reduced vitamin E and an altered fatty acid  composition, compared with the non-GM variety.

GM rice varieties have shown major nutritional disturbances in protein, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and trace elements compared with non-GM counterparts, although they were grown side-by-side in the same conditions.

GM maize has been found to  lack some of the fatty acids and amino acids found in non-GM maize.

How we farm, the techniques and technologies that we use to produce the food that we eat, matters.  The nutritional quality of our food matters.

My money happily goes to organic because I want to encourage farming that protects the ecosystem ‘out there’ as well as my own internal ‘ecosystem’.

The simple truth is: More isn’t better. Better is better.

Pat Thomas, Editor