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Do consumers really know what they are getting when they buy organic food?

- Thursday, July 25, 2013

It seems that at present, anyone in Australia with even the slightest ambition of becoming a foodie assumes that as a matter of course, the only good food is organic food. Exactly why organic food has gained such popularity is a complete mystery, as there is no evidence of either nutritional or environmental benefits for consumers.

Discussing the relative merits of conventional and organic farming systems (which are the source of organic foods) is one of those subjects that seems to attract a fair degree of vitriol and passion, so it is necessary to start any discussion with the observation that there is nothing inherently wrong with either organic or conventional farming systems. 

In fact, a large proportion of Australian farms - especially in the pastoral zone - meet organic standards, even if they haven't bothered to become accredited. And most Australian farm production systems are much closer to meeting the definition of organic than the majority of farms in north America or Europe, simply because Australian agriculture has evolved as a relatively 'low input' farming system.

That said, part of the reason organic foods seems to have become the flavor of the month for professional foodies (despite the 10-30% price premium) is the belief that organic foods are safer and more nutritious, and that organic farming systems are kinder to the environment. 

Neither of these beliefs are supported by objective evidence. In fact, there have been a number of highly credible research reviews released by scientists in the past year that have highlighted that organic foods are nutritionally no different to non-organic foods, and that organic farming systems are no more sustainable than non-organic farming systems (and in fact may be considerably less sustainable from a future global food security perspective, because of lower yields and therefore extra land and water use). 

The significance of both these reviews is that they involved analyses of a large body of research results, rather than single research trials, and therefore provide a much more robust comparison of the foods and farming systems.

One difference that does emerge in these studies between organic and conventional foods was a slightly increased risk of pesticide residues on conventional foods. As the report noted;

While researchers found that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables, organic foods are not necessarily 100 percent free of pesticides. What’s more, as the researchers noted, the pesticide levels of all foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits.

This is perhaps not surprising - in fact it would be surprising if that was not the case. The critical question is whether or not the presence of pesticide residues associated with either organic or conventional foods presents any risk to consumers.

Government authorities have been at pains to reinforce that the residue standards that are applied to inputs used in either organic or conventional farming are extremely conservative, with a wide margin of safety. In fact the testing regime that governments apply to farm inputs before they can be used in farming has become more and more stringent over time, as has the level of scrutiny that is applied to agricultural products after they leave the farm gate. 

Even though there are very occasional instances where these processes seem to have failed (as the recent ABC 4 Corners episode alleged) industry surveillance programs such as the National Residue Survey regularly confirm extremely high levels of compliance with pesticide and chemical residue standards, and that such incidents can arise in the case of either organic or conventional farming systems.

Despite this, there seems to be a belief that any pesticide residue risk is a danger to human health, and presumably this is a key factor in the popularity of organic foods. 

The lure of the organic label seems to have now spread well beyond just foods, with supermarket aisles now laden with organic deodorants, cleaning products, hair shampoos and moisturising creams. The organic label has become so pervasive that recently the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) issued an order requiring the removal of the word 'organic' from labels on bottles of mineral water, on the basis that water cannot be organic, based on the accepted definition of that term..

In an ideal world, organic and conventional farming should be able to co-exist, leaving it up to consumers to make a choice, irrespective of what science says about the differences between products of the two systems. 

While this is often the case on the ground, things are not that simple when it comes to the minds of consumers. The appeal of organic foods lies in the fact they are promoted as being better and safer than non-organic foods, and the greater the perceived risks associated with conventional foods, the greater the attraction (and price premium) associated with organics. This creates a strong incentive for promoters of organic foods to exaggerate the perceived risks associated with conventional agricultural systems.

The risk this creates for conventional agriculture is that safe, productivity-enhancing technologies and inputs will be prohibited, based more on consumer and public sentiment, rather than actual science. Ultimately, this will reduce the international competitiveness of Australian agriculture.

Of course, the more this happens, the more conventional agriculture will resemble organic agriculture, and the harder it will ultimately be for organic products to sustain premium prices. It would be the ultimate irony if the current populism associated with organic foods ultimately contributed to their demise!

Anonymous commented on 26-Jul-2013 10:06 AM
Thank you! At last some sane discussion on this topic. It is a pity that the foodies wont read this..
Emily WALLIS commented on 27-Jul-2013 05:45 PM
I cannot believe this brutal attack on organic food in Australia. As an organic food consumer I try to purchase organic food when available and I have to be vigilant to ensure it is certified and that the certifier is following organic standard protocol. I fail understand the statement that it is a complete mystery “why organic food has gained such popularity” . This is a no brainer – let’s try less chemicals, better for the planet, our waterways, our health would be a good start. Providing organic standards are followed then the nutrient content should be better also.
I prefer to eat my vegetables and fruit without harmful pesticides and herbicides. For you to say why the concern, then I suggest you read the MDS sheet on the chemicals that are being applied to our food. I think you would certainly take a different point of view.
Anonymous commented on 27-Jul-2013 06:23 PM
This is NOT an attack on organic foods. If consumers wish to purchase them then that is their choice, and farmers will respond to consumer demand. The point of the piece is to report detailed scientific analysis, including many studies in different locations, by scientists that were not funded by one side or the other of the organic/conventional debate, which concluded that organic and conventional foods are the same in terms of nutritional value, that conventionally produced foods are more sustainable, and that the pesticide risk is slightly greater for conventional foods, but both foods were founds to have some risk of pesticides, although not at levels creating any human health risk.

It needs to be remembered that, contrary to what is believed by some consumers, organic farming entails the use of pesticides. They are different pesticides to those used in conventional farming, but the misuse of pesticides can occur in either organic or conventional farming.
Richard commented on 28-Jul-2013 12:39 PM
This is NOT an attack on organic foods."

Certainly reads like it given the tone and the obvious bias towards chemical agriculture. While you can argue about the nutritional analysis of chemically grown and organically grown produce,fresh organically grown produce usually tastes better, which is part of the reason people are happy to pay a premium for it.

"It needs to be remembered that, contrary to what is believed by some consumers, organic farming entails the use of pesticides"

What absolute rubbish! There are pesticides that are approved for use in organic farming, but to therefore state that all organic farming entails the use of pesticides makes absolutely no sense. I grow vegetables and have sprayed one crop once with pyrethrum in the last three years. The point of growing organically is to develop a balanced ecosystem so you don't need to resort to carpet bombing crops with chemicals.
Anonymous commented on 28-Jul-2013 03:55 PM
Your comments highlights the very points being made in the article. Firstly, there is a wide range of pesticides that are able to be used in organic production, and the misuse of these can present just as much a risk to consumers as the misuse of pesticides used in conventional production. Secondly, the use of phrases like "carpet bombing crops with chemicals" serves no other purpose than to denigrate conventional production systems. It is a false characterisation of the vast bulk of conventional farm businesses in Australia - and is only designed to falsely enhance the appeal (and price premium) of organic production at the expense of conventional farm businesses.
Jerry J commented on 28-Jul-2013 11:50 PM
One only has to look at the alarming cancer rates today to assume that we are being overloaded with chemicals from our food, water, motor vehicle pollution etc. While chemical residue may be small in your opinion it does accumulate in the body and this is of a major concern.
Without specific details of the studies conducted and how they were ascertained by the scientists I will take the results with a grain of salt. There are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics. Studies can be manipulated to suit the outcome.
Anonymous commented on 29-Jul-2013 08:57 AM
Jerry - you make two points - one that cancer rates are alarming (and presumably increasing due to chemicals)and two - that unless you have the details of the studies conducted (comparing organic and conventional foods) you would take them with a grain of salt. On the first, I suggest you have a look at the official cancer rates published by the Australian government ( and you might get a surprise - in fact cancer incidence rates (adjusted for the increasing age of the population) haven't changed much at all over the last twenty years in Australia, and the cancers that are increasing are prostate cancer in men (a factor of increasing average age and better detection procedures) and skin cancer in the general population( arising from sun exposure). Drawing some sort of link between these statistics and pesticide use is drawing a pretty long bow. On your second point, you question the validity of the comparisons referred to in the blog post. It is for that reason that links were provided in the post to the actual reports of the research, so readers could examine the findings themselves. It is worth noting that the research was conducted by research groups at Stanford and McGill Universities, neither of which had any funding from agrichemical or agribusiness groups, and that in both instances the reviews were analyses of large numbers of trials - and hence produce a much more robust result than research involving single trials. Perhaps you should have a look at the detail provided before commenting.
Louise Dunn commented on 29-Jul-2013 09:47 AM
So let's have a think about what organic food actually is food grown with no or much less pesticides; it is food without a host of additives and preservatives - no list of ingredients that you can't pronounce and have no idea what they are - simply it is real food, the way it used to be. The writer has quoted one study claiming there is no difference nutritionally. I could quote many that claim the opposite - one example: "In a review of 400 published papers comparing organic and nonorganic foods, Soil Association Certification Ltd. Of the United Kingdom reported that organic crops were higher in essential minerals, phytonutrients, and vitamin C. Phytonutrients are plant compounds other than vitamins and minerals" ( "Safe" levels of pesticide ingestion set by Government bodies are irrelevant - there is no way to measure how much pesticide (or herbicide) residue is in or on each food item or to keep track of an individual intake due to differences in diet. The writer has also made no mention of GMOs. Seems strange that an article such as this would completely ignore one of the most important issues surrounding food. But then all inconvenient truths which do not support this writers biaised opinion have been ignored. Of course organic does not always mean 100% better and safer - even the organic industry is not exempt from lies and false claims and GMO contamination.
Anonymous commented on 29-Jul-2013 12:34 PM
As noted in the original blog post, the research papers referred were large-scale reviews carried out by teams of independent researchers at major Universities who subjected their findings to peer review, and then had them published in major international scientific journals. They were not scientists with vested interests, - in fact in one case they were medical researchers, and in the other environmental researchers, neither of which would be expected to favour conventionally-produced foods. The study you refer to was, by comparison, carried out by an organisation involved in the organics industry, and was not subject to peer scrutiny nor was it published in an international journal. People will believe what they want, but I'm afraid that the research referred to in the original blog post carries a little more credibility than the one you referred to.

In relation to GMOs - that was not the topic of the discussion, but it could easily have extended to that, and highlighted that one of the main pesticides that is allowed to be used by organic producers is in fact the same compound that is present in the leaves of insect-resistant GMO plant varieties. It could also have noted that recently released research has identified a considerably reduce risk of pesticide residues associated with food products from insect-resistant GM crops. That, however, is a whole topic of discussion in itself!
Anonymous commented on 30-Jul-2013 12:41 AM
Let's stop denigrating both organic and conventional food and recognise that this issue is about choice and risk management for some consumers, including those in Australia's key Asian markets where food contamination is a serious threat to human health.
Bemused commented on 30-Jul-2013 03:39 PM
Read the article with interest. Not sure I am convinced by the strengths of the arguments presented.

I am interested in evidence based argumentation so let me ask some basic questions.

The assertion is made that “ In fact, a large proportion of Australian farms - especially in the pastoral zone - meet organic standards, even if they haven't bothered to become accredited. And most Australian farm production systems are much closer to meeting the definition of organic than the majority of farms in north America or Europe, simply because Australian agriculture has evolved as a relatively 'low input' farming system.”
What evidence do you have for that assertion?

On what basis do you make your claim that “ organic foods seems to have become the flavor of the month for professional foodies.” My understanding is that there has been a growing interest in organics in the West, particularly since the 1960s. I'm also not sure who or what constitutes a professional foodie.

You deal with the Standford report as being definitive but seem to ignore the fact that it clearly states two things which undermine your use of the study in your argument:
Firstly that “ If you look beyond health effects, there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic instead of conventional,” noted Bravata. She listed taste preferences and concerns about the effects of conventional farming practices on the environment and animal welfare as some of the reasons people choose organic products. –
Secondly that “In discussing limitations of their work, the researchers noted the heterogeneity of the studies they reviewed due to differences in testing methods; physical factors affecting the food, such as weather and soil type; and great variation among organic farming methods. With regard to the latter, there may be specific organic practices (for example, the way that manure fertilizer, a risk for bacterial contamination, is used and handled) that could yield a safer product of higher nutritional quality.”

Are you also not guilty of misrepresenting the findings of the report in Nature? It quite clearly states that yields in organic agriculture are lower that conventional agriculture (is that any surprise???) However it gies on to say “To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.”

So excuse my bemused cynicism but I'm not sure I can take your article seriously if you are happy to use research reports so irresponsibly.

I look forward to your response.
Anonymous commented on 30-Jul-2013 08:20 PM
Bemused, In response to your questions; Evidence in relation to the 'closeness' of Australian broadacre production systems to organic production - first, Australia has the worlds largest area of organically certified lands, second, artificial fertiliser use rates in Australia are typically between one seventh and one third those used in the northern hemisphere; third; Australian broadacre cropping systems involve crop/pasture rotations not seen in most other locations and which involve naturally fixed nitrogen and reduced use of pesticides and weedicides - and the list could go on and on. There is a wealth of data and analyses if you wish to check. On the second point, observations of recommendations and discussions by celebrity chefs and food writers in media such as the Sydney Morning Herald and television cooking shows (see recent post on this site) On the third point, - yes - the Stanford report did note other reasons consumers may choose organic - such as freshness, seasonality and local production - but these characteristics are not unique to organic production. These qualities can equally be qualities associated with conventional farm production. On your final point, you will note the blog post noted that the post referred to the fact that the study concluded that organic systems appear no more sustainable than conventional farming systems, and in fact may be less so from a future global food security perspective, given the need for more land for an organic system to produce the same amount of food due to generally lower yields. The reality is that either an organic or a conventional farm can be unsustainable if it is overstocked, or weeds are allowed to take over, or erosion or pest animals are allowed to take over. Bad management will have the same effect on farm productivity, irrespective of whether the system is organic or conventional. As noted, there is nothing wrong with either conventional or organic farming systems that are well managed, and consumers should be free to make their choice - but not based on questionable denigration of conventional farming systems.
Roger Monk commented on 31-Jul-2013 12:40 PM
Come on chaps stop arguing and go outside and look at your garden/fields/paddocks.

Would you prefer to eat food that came from ground:

1)that had only home made compost (free from all industrial, chemical, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides or

2)that had Monsanto industrial chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides added.

The choice is real and easy


Roger Monk
Anonymous commented on 31-Jul-2013 03:05 PM
Roger, only problem is that your comment is misleading on both counts. As noted earlier, organic producers use a range of different inputs including metals and pesticides, and Monsanto is mainly a plant breeding company (although also producing glyphosate herbicide), producing crops and many vegetable varieties that can be grown by organic farmers!
Sam Heagney commented on 10-Sep-2013 11:52 AM
Mick Keogh has certainly stirred many organic consumers with this article, with concerns it is an attack on organic foods. Rather than the alledged attack on organics, could this post be a defence of conventional food.

There is little doubt that the idea of eating food that has never seen an inorganic chemical is very attractive. The unfortunate fact is that the majority of food production, in Australia & worldwide, is through conventional methods. There is wide discussion whether either production system is beneficial to the environment or consumers and this debate doesn't change the fact that most food is not organically produced. Organic production methods fit many production regions extremely well. A great example is the cattle producing region of south west Queensland. Conversely, the biggest Wheat growing state in Australia (by volume), could not be sustained under organic production systems due to the environment in which these crops are grown.

Most food available from retailers is not organic. The greater majority of Australians & moreso, the greater population of the world, cannot afford to pay the price premiums organic foods command. So while I applaud anyone's choice to consume organic food, it is unkind for that person to denigrate anyone else who chooses differently. It is unfair to guilt tight budgeted families into feeling as though they are being irresponsible for not choosing organic. Likewise, it is not the place of consumers to unfairly characterise conventional production with inaccurate phrases like "carpet bombing crops with chemicals".

Organic production systems simply don't fit all food growing regions & it is not irresponsible or unethical for farmers to use conventional production methods to grow food for an expanding population. Despite the perceived negativity of chemical usage, there are many environmental benefits to conventional production. In broad acre crop production, zero tillage reduces soil erosion. This modern, environmentally beneficial management technique is not possible through organic production.

Amongst many other goals, farmers constantly tread a fine line of aiming to be environmentally, financially & socially sustainable. A lot of the time the middle ground they find involves the use of chemicals.

By all means make your choice, but please don't impose that choice on others who chooose differently.

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