Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Annex 1


In the United Kingdom, demand for organic food is growing at over 40 per cent a year.3


  1.1  A MORI survey for the Soil Association (June 1999) showed that consumers buy organic food because they believe it to be healthier, free of chemicals, better tasting, GM free, better for the environment and better for animal welfare.13

  1.2  The MORI survey showed that over half of those who brought organic food, did so "because they believed it to be safe and healthy. This attitude is, presumably, based on the perception that hazards in foods derive from agrochemical additives, whereas microbes, not chemicals, are the major source of foodborne illnesses".16

  1.3  These attitudes have been based on the information available to consumers, some of which is very misleading.

  Examples include:

  1.4  "Organic food is produced from safe, sustainable farming systems, producing healthy crops and livestock without damage to the environment."24

  1.5  "The best reason for buying organic food is simply that it tastes extremely good, but undoubtedly there are also sound health reasons for doing so."24

  1.6  "Organic food is produced without artificial fertilisers, chemicals, pesticides or genetic modification. This natural method of farming helps enrich the soil, minimises pollution and supports the environment."24

  1.7  "Food produced by organic methods is nutritious, healthy and safe. Organic farming relies principally on the application of animal manures, the rotation of crops, and in our case the growing of clover to provide the nitrogen for its accompanying grasses. No artificial fertilisers, insecticides or herbicides are ever used. This encourages the establishment and well being of both flora and fauna. We rely on homeopathic medicines for ourselves and our stock, no antibiotics or other drugs are used routinely."14

  1.8  However there is no conclusive evidence to support many of these claims. There are a range of positive and negative factors to organic farming, as there are with conventional farming. In organic farming positive factors have been heavily promoted, but the negative factors have been ignored.


  2.1  The MORI survey13 showed that over half of those who bought organic food, did so because they thought it was safe and healthy.

  2.2  As far as nutrition is concerned, the evidence suggests there is little difference between the two types of food:

  2.3  "Although there is some evidence of differences between organic and conventionally produced foods, there is not a great deal of evidence that these differences represent differences in food quality....The significance of any such differences for health depends upon the proportion of the diet derived from the particular product, and indeed, the other constituents of the diet."11

  2.4  "There is not evidence whatever to indicate that chemically fertilized plants are less nutritious than non-fertilized."25

  2.5  "Organic foods are certainly not more nutritious. Experiments conducted for many years have found no difference in the nutrient content of organically grown crops and those grown under standard agricultural conditions.!2

  2.6  "There is no scientific evidence at this time to suggest that organically produced foods are more nutritious."21

  2.7  "Jeanne Goldberg PhD, RD, an associate professor and director of the Center on Nutrition Communication at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts says "Nutritionally speaking, there is absolutely no evidence that organic is better, you're not going to get any more vitamins and minerals in a peach or strawberry grown with manure than you will in one grown with commercial fertilizers.""10

  2.8  "We have not found consistent and valid reports on differences in the mineral contents of organic and conventional foods. An early report4 of differences in mineral content between vegetables grown on widely differing soil types has commonly been misquoted as evidence for the benefits of organic production. There are many factors, environmental and cultural, that influence the nutritional composition of produce and that are not unique to either cultural system."16

  2.9  "Investigations both in Europe and in the US have failed to find any difference between organic food and other food in terms of all the major constituents, minerals and vitamins."27

  2.10  However, one study has actually shown processed organic products to be less healthy than their conventionally produced equivalents:

  2.11  A Sunday Times study has revealed that compared with ordinary products, many processed organic foods contain higher levels of fat, sugar and salt—all of which can cause heart problems.5


  3.1  "There is not conclusive evidence that organically produced food is safer or less safe than that produced conventionally."11

  3.2  However, there have been particular aspects of organic farming and food that have raised concerns over safety:

  3.3  Prof Tony Trewevas of Edinburgh University's Department of Cell and Molecular Biology was quoted as saying "Organic food is considerably less safe than we are led to believe because it depends on animal waste for its production which means a higher risk of infection of organisms such as E-coli 0157". He said that fresh lettuce, cabbage and parsley from "organic" sources posed a potentially serious public health risk and went on to say: "It is just a matter of time before we see the appearance of mycotoxins in our food chain from so-called organic farming." He also said microbial spoilage of organic food was a recognised problem and that there were no current plans to monitor the long-term effects of present day organic food.15

  3.4  Prof Alan Gray, Acting Chairman of ACRE (Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment) said "It was a myth that organic food was safer. You are 30 times more likely to poison yourself with organic produce because it allows Bt (the bacterium Bacillus thruringiensis) to spread directly. When ingested the bacterium produces endotoxins which attack the wall of insects' guts. In mammals they can cause death from toxic shock.15

  3.5  The use of farmyard manure as a fertiliser gives rise to concerns about the possible contamination of agricultural produce with pathogens (especially E. coli 1057) and the possible contamination of ground and surface water. The UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in its 19th report on the Sustainable Use of Soil (1996) reviewed the use of organic materials in agriculture, including their safety. It concluded that there is a potential risk to human and animal health from pathogens in animal wastes.15

  3.6  "In October of 1992, public health officials investigated several cases of bloody diarrhoea in a small town in Maine; one of the patients . . . died of kidney failure. The cause? Escherichia coli 0157:H7, better known as plain E. Coli . . . the source of the E. Coli was a fresh vegetable from an organic garden. Three other separate cases were traced to organic lettuces, probably contaminated by E. Coli infected cow manure. In the US over 100 million tons of manure are produced per year and less than 7 per cent is composted."19

  3.7  "Two outbreaks of E. coli 0157 in the US were traced to organic strawberries and lettuce. In Aberdeen, home-made organic goats' cheese initiated an E. coli outbreak among children; in Germany an outbreak of Citrobacter that killed one child and damaged nine others was traced to organic parsley treated with pig manure."27

  3.8  "A study at the University of Illinois has shown that consumers eating organic produce are eight times more likely to contract E. coli" than those who eat conventional produce.26, 1

  3.9  "Organic farmers preferably apply cow or pig manure when this is available. It can be infected with the dangerous bacterium E. coli 1057 disease organism that lives happily in the guts of cattle. Infection in human beings kills, or leaves victims without functioning kidneys."27

  3.10  "Organic farming often uses manure to grow fruit and vegetables. Manure is a natural habitat for bacteria like Escherichia coli 0157 and salmonella. Even if this food is cleaned properly, the bacteria can infect the tissue of the plant, making the risk of contracting these diseases far higher."3

  3.11  "Citrobacter freundii lives in pigs' guts and is also potentially lethal. If manure is pasteurised, or if you properly cook contaminated food, then the organism is killed. The problem is to guarantee that this is done."27

  3.12  "Consumers of organic food are also more likely to be attacked by a relatively new, more virulent strain of the infamous salmonella bacteria."1

  3.13  "Without fungicides to prevent infection, plants respond by producing toxins of their own."26

  3.14  "Organic and `natural' food consumers also face increased risk of illness from toxins produced by fungi—and some of these toxins are carcinogenic. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regularly tests samples of various foods for such dangers, and it routinely finds high levels of these natural toxins in organically grown produce. It found, for instance, that organic crops have higher rates of infestation by aflatoxin, one of the most virulent carcinogens known to man."1

  3.15  "The use of effective fungicides has reduced the risk from mycotoxins in normal food, but not necessarily in organic food. Constant exposure to mycotoxin carcinogens can be expected to have long-term effects, detectable only by continual monitoring. However, there are no current plans to carry out this monitoring."27

  3.16  "Organic farmers are allowed to spray crops with bacterial spores to act as a general-purpose insecticide. But earlier this year [1999] these spores were found to cause serious, often fatal, lung infections in mice, and to infect wounds and damage human cells in culture."27

  3.17  "Plants react vigorously when attacked by disease organisms and synthesise many chemicals that are carcinogenic. Thus organic cider from apples has much higher patulins levels, and celery has higher levels of psoralen which, without careful harvesting, can cause serious skin burns."27

  3.18  "The most enduring myth about food is probably that organic food is devoid of carcinogenic compounds because it is grown without synthetic chemicals. Plants have natural toxins to protect themselves. These natural pesticides, like those produced synthetically, can cause tumours in experimental rats at very high doses."3

  3.19  "Toxicologists such as Ames and Gold (1999) attest that everyday foodstuffs like orange juice, nutmeg and coffee have far higher levels of natural toxins then synthetic pesticides. The combination in both is insignificant in health terms. Our bodies are adept at dealing with all toxins, regardless of origin. Nearly all pesticides we ingest are natural. Hence, it is considered folly by many toxicologists to worry about synthetic pesticides as a cause of cancer."3

  Concerns over the use of synthetic pesticides appear to be unfounded:

  3.20  "Death caused by either natural or synthetic pesticide residues in food has never been proven. Deaths from pesticides are tragically almost all suicides, or are caused by high-dose occupational exposures. Even natural and essential substances like Vitamin A can kill at high doses."3

  3.21  Director W M Fifield of the Florida Experiment Station has said: "Not a single instance has been called to our attention where the use of chemicals in production or protection of our state's crops or livestock has resulted in harmful effects on humans who have consumed them."25


  4.1  While in general fewer agrochemicals are used in organic farming some forms of pesticide are used and although these tend to be based on "natural" products this does not mean they are safer than the highly regulated and tested synthetic pesticides.

  4.2  Over 30 additives are allowed in organic production, and the washing of fruit and vegetables in sodium hyperchloride is permitted.15

  4.3  People who believe that chemicals used in farming are detrimental to health may be interested to know that "every day, each of us eats a quarter of a teaspoonful of carcinogens; 99.99 per cent of these are made naturally by all plants—whether organic, GM or intensively farmed—to inhibit disease organisms and deter consumption by animals and insects."27

  4.4  "Pesticide residues are lower in organic food—but not absent. Organic farmers are allowed to use pesticides, but apply them more sparingly and tend not to use the broad-spectrum pesticides—although pyrethrum (a common fly-filler spray) is permitted, because it is found naturally in some plants. Regulations vary from country to country, but antibiotics such as streptomycin are acceptable if they are derived from fermentation."27

  4.5  "Organic farmers use sulphur as a weak pesticide. But sulphur contains lead, a known danger. What is not known is how much of the lead is transferred to the food we eat."27


  5.1  Organic produce is often quoted as being tastier than conventionally produced food. This can often by as a result of organic produce being fresher as it has a much shorter shelf life and is therefore not stored for as long as some conventionally produced food.

  Direct comparisons between organic and conventionally produced foods show neither type of produce as being better tasting.

  5.2  "The results in the scientific literature show no consistent pattern for sensory quality between organically and conventionally grown produce."9

  5.3  "In the early 1990's Israeli researchers made 460 assessments of nine different fruits and vegetables and found no significant difference in quality between `organic' and conventionally grown samples."2

  5.4  As part of a survey by the University of California on the differences between organic and conventionally grown tomatoes, "researchers picked 40 people to do a taste test. Ten people said that the organic tomatoes had better flavour and texture, 10 people said that the conventionally grown tomatoes were better and 20 people could not tell the difference." cited in17

  5.5  In the US the USDA has labelling requirements which prevent producers making claims that organic foods are better or even different to conventional foods.2

  5.6  "Some reports on qualitative differences, such as flavour in potatoes, can be attributed to differences in dry matter concentration and can be associated with the growing conditions, principally the supplies of water and nitrogen. There, the preferred conditions are as easily provided in conventional culture as in any other."16


  6.1  There is much variation between standards in each country, some such as the Soil Association in the UK will not allow GM products in their certified produce while other such as the EU permit GM products.15 As the MORI survey in 1999 suggests, many people buy organic produce because they believe it to be GM free, however this is only the case in some organic produce. Consumers need to be aware of these variations.

  6.2  For those concerned about the use of GM products, the findings of a recent US report has concluded that there is no distinction between plants bred using biotechnology and those produced through traditional crossbreeding.12

  6.3  It must also be remembered that modern crop varieties have been adapted by the use of biotechnology. "Organic farmers can and do use modern crop varieties, since they have disease resistance and good yields. However these varieties acquired their genes from different species by difficult laboratory procedures; for example, rice obtained genes from sorghum wheat. These are not natural plants and they don't survive in fields unless continually cultivated."27

  6.4  "For over 70 years, plant breeding and selection for resistance to diseases has been seen as an important means for agricultural progress. This strategy has had some successes but in many cases, for example rice blast in rice and late blight of potato, disease resistance in the crop has been relatively short-lived and the disease organism has mutated or been selected to overcome that resistance. If durable forms of resistance to any of the major diseases could be introduced into otherwise acceptable varieties by genetic modification, the saving in use of agrochemicals would be immense."16


  Claims that organic farming is better for the environment as it is more "natural" are not necessarily true.

  7.1  CWS Farms Group has been experimenting with organic farming since 1989, with much success. However, their Project Manager made the point "The perception that organic farming is per se better for the environment because it relies on natural processes does not always hold true. Natural processes are variable and outside the grower's control. This can cause problems. The natural breakdown of mineral nitrogen, for example, can occur at the wrong time for the plants, increasing the chances of nitrate leaching. Wildlife likes the `unkempt' bits and organic farms are not necessarily likely to have more untidy areas than conventional farms."15

  7.2  There is some concern that the use of farmyard manure may be getting into ground and surface water15

  7.3  "The use of farmyard manure adds humus to the soil, which aids structure, and encourages earthworms and other minor invertebrates. It may also add an excess of phosphates which, although essential plant nutrients, can also cause pollution of water courses. By contrast, some concern was expressed that phosphorus might be being removed at a greater rate than it is replaced in organic systems."11

  7.4  (In Korea and Japan) "The overuse of organic fertiliser by some organic farmers has caused some severe problems since they apply too much organic fertilizer compared to the need of crops." This could lead to a "potential risk for NO3 leaching".23

  7.5  "Water leached from organic farms has been reported to contain less nitrate than the EC nitrate limit of 50mg/litre although, in MAFF projects NT1313 and OF01410, the limit was sometimes exceeded. Nitrate leaching in the two systems [organic and conventional] was said to be highly variable."16

  7.6  The BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) amongst their evidence given to the House of Lords, noted that "some aspects of organic farming may not be beneficial to bird populations, for example disturbance caused by mechanical weeding, and the early cutting of clover-based leys."11

  7.7  "Organic farming is claimed to be better for the countryside. For example, birds and other wildlife are a valued part of organic farming. It is a matter of record that less intensive application of conventional methods achieves the same results. Conventional farms can be, and often are, managed in ways that provide the benefits to wildlife claimed by the organic movement."16

  7.8  "If very large organic farms were to become common, it would remain to be seen whether they brought the same benefits for biodiversity as smaller organic units."11

  7.9  The Institute of Arable Crops Research (IACR) at Rothamsted said that "any farming system, whether it be conventional, integrated or organic, can achieve the environmental benefits that organic farming aims to achieve."11

  7.10  "To institute organic farming countrywide would mean ploughing up wilderness, hedges and woodland to make up the shortfall compared to intensive farming."27


  8.1  "Evidence for increased disease resistance, productivity, or fertility of animals feeding on organically grown fodder is largely anecdotal."9

  Veterinary treatment in organic systems raises some serious animal welfare concerns:

  8.2  EU regulations state "when animals become sick or injured, they should be treated immediately by giving preference to phytotherapeutic (herbal) or homeopathic medicinal products and by limiting to a strict minimum the use of chemically-synthesised allopathic medicinal products in order to guarantee the integrity of organic production for consumers it should be possible to take restrictive measures such as doubling the withdrawal period after use of chemically synthesised allopathic medicinal products."8

  8.3  SSPCA has raised concerns over—New guidelines advising farmers to use homeopathic remedies rather than conventional.18

  8.4  "Some of the standards set down for the management of animal health, while the motives may be well-intended, could in fact jeopardise the health and welfare of animals or put human health at risk."20

  8.5  Firstly the use of unregulated homeopathic remedies as opposed to strictly regulated conventional animal medicines, raises questions over the safety and efficacy of the product and its likely effects on the animal and the consumer of the animal treated. Unlike regulated animal medicines, homeopathic remedies do not have withdrawal periods.

  8.6  The requirement to automatically double withdrawal periods is illogical, unscientific and a potential threat to animal welfare. MRLs and withdrawal periods for licensed medicines are based on rigorous, independent, international scientific standards incorporating massive safety factors. There is no logic to a "blanket" doubling which takes no account of the properties of the individual product. Such additional delay could prompt a farmer to withhold treatment of an animal near to market (or to cheat).

  8.7  The organic method of using medicines therapeutically as opposed to preventative treatments, means that the animal has to get sick and suffer before it is treated, whereas preventative medicines would have prevented the suffering from happening at all. While symptoms develop there is also an increased risk of the sick animal passing infection to its fellows, further increasing suffering and increasing the total volume of medicine used.

  8.8  There has been some criticism of the organic restrictions on medicine usage by farmers. A Scottish farmer recently was denied organic certification for his sheep because he was using an 8:1 anti-clostridial vaccine instead of a 4:1. The 8:1 vaccine was recommended by his vet as being the best for his sheep to protect unborn lambs against lamb dysentery. Had he followed the organic rules and changed to the 4:1 vaccine his animals might have been subjected to suffering and death.6


  9.1  It is important to remember that whilst organic farming in the UK is increasing with the help of government funding, it is not increasing at a rate high enough to meet consumer demand for organic produce.

  9.2  This means that about 70 per cent of organic food is imported from continental Europe and US sources.16

  9.3  With such a variety of sources regulating standards becomes difficult. MAFF's role in regulating the quality of imports depends on trust and imports are not Soil Association Accredited. Therefore, there could be great variations in standards.15

  9.4  The importing of such a large percentage of organic food also present environmental concerns. As Rosemary Stanton, an Australian Nutritionist speaking about organic food in Australia says, "It's ridiculous to buy organic food that is flown out here in planes using massive amounts of fossil fuels."7 The imports into the UK must also have environmental costs in their methods of transport into the country.


  1.  Avery, D T (1998) The Hidden Dangers in Organic Food [Online].

  2.  Barrett, M D (Date unknown) Organic Foods: Will Certification Protect Consumers? [Online].

  3.  Bate, R (2000) Organic Myths: The Retreat From Science, Biotechnology and Development Monitor, 1 March [Online].

  4.  Bear, F E (1948) Variations in mineral compositions of vegetables, Soil Science Society of America Proceedings 13, 380-384.

  5.  Bevan, S (1999) Warning: organic food can seriously damage your health, 12 September, Sunday Times.

  6.  Christie, J (2000) Letter to Farming News—Red tape makes mockery of hard-fought "organic" status, Farming News, May 11.

  7.  Dixon, A (1999) Wealth Warning on Health Foods, The Sun Herald, 5 September [Online].

  8.  EC (1999) Council Regulation (EC) No 1804/1999 of 19 July 1999 supplementing Regulation (EEC) No 2092/91 on organic production of agricultural products and indications referring thereto on agricultural products and foodstuffs to include livestock production.

  9.  Finesilver, T, Johns, T and Hill, SB (data unknown) Comparison of Food Quality of Organically Versus Conventionally Grown Plant Foods, Ecological Agriculture Projects [Online].

  10.  Holman, J R (date unknown) Phys. Trick or Treat? What Organic Really Means, [Online].

  11.  House of Lords European Communities Sixteenth Report 20 July 1999.

  12.  House Subcommittee on Basic Research (2000) Seeds of Opportunity: An Assessment of the Benefits, Safety, and Oversight of Plant Genomics and Agricultural Biotechnology.

  13.  IGD Organic Food Conference, 2 November 1999.

  14.  J Sainsbury web site

  15.  Kidd M, & Lweis E (1999) Organic Foods—Consumer Concerns, The Consumer Panel Secretariat, JFSSG.

  16.  MacKerron, D K L, Duncan, J M, Hillman, J R, Mackay, G R, Robinson, D J, Trudgill, D L, Wheatley, R J (2000) Organic Farming: Science and Belief, Excerpted from the 1998-99 Annual Report, Scottish Crop Research Institute, 1 February [Online].

  17.  Mael, S (1997) Agroecology Group Project, Organic Farming [Online].

  18.  McLaren, C (2000) Organic Guidelines Raise Welfare Worry, Farming News, 4 May.

  19.  Nelson, H (date unknown) The contamination of Organic Produce by Human Pathogens in Animal Manures, Ecological Agriculture Projects [Online].

  20.  NOAH (1990) Position Paper on Organic Farming.

  21.  Organic Trade Association (date unknown) Frequently Asked Questions: Is Organic Food Better for You? [Online].

  22.  Penbryn Organic Farmhouse Cheese web site

  23.  Sohn, S M (1996) Nitrate and Overuse of Organic Fertiliser S1, IFOAM Book of Abstracts.

  24.  Soil Association web site

  25.  Throckmorton, R I (date unknown) The Organic Farming Myth, Kansas State College [Online].

  26.  Trewavas, A (1999) Organic Safety Scare, BAA Grapevine.

  27.  Trewavas, A (1999) Is Organic Food Really Safe? Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Edinburgh, 30 July [Online].

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