Andreas Späth

Storm in an organic teacup

2010-08-18 07:45

It’s a food fight! Last week Meagan Karstens published an article entitled 6 good reasons to go organic on Women24.com. Resident Channel24 shock jock Chris McEvoy responded by exposing the organic movement for what he thinks it is: a big, fat, money-making boondoggle.

Read together, the two pieces do more to muddy the waters than provide useful information. Karstens’ article represents standard magazine fare on the topic, regurgitating the accepted organic canon without much in the way of supporting evidence. What it contains in good intentions, it lacks in detail and research.

With his usual outrageous brilliance, McEvoy counters by wielding the polemic weapon of school-yard bullies and televangelists everywhere: if I shout my opinion louder than you, mine’s got to be true. For all its machismo and entertainment value, his contribution provides even less factual content than the original article.

Before you cancel your weekly organic veggie box in disgust, I thought I’d add my own two cents’ worth.

Organic food tastes better

She says “It does”. He says “No. It. Doesn’t.” Taste is a subjective measure of quality. There’s even a so-called “halo” effect: the average consumer will expect food to taste better just because it’s labelled “organic”.

There have been numerous taste tests pitting organic against non-organic food. Many have found no consistent difference, but among the well-designed investigations that did identify a significant distinction, the majority favour organic foods. More sophisticated organoleptic studies which evaluate the sensory properties of products involving colour, feel, odour and taste have consistently rated products such as organic apples, strawberries and tomatoes superior to their non-organic counterparts in terms of sweetness, intensity of flavour, texture and crispness.

It’s more nutritious

Here McEvoy dispenses with the pesky requirement of addressing the issue at hand altogether. Existing scientific data on the matter is, in fact, patchy. Two, influential literature reviews commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency found no evidence that organic and conventional foods differ significantly in nutrient content or health benefits.

There have, however, been a number of reports, including several long-term, EU-funded studies and a recent survey by the French national food agency, which argue that many organic products are richer in nutritionally desirable compounds, including vitamins, antioxidants, polyunsaturated fatty acids and beneficial minerals, and have lower levels of undesirable compounds such as nitrates and heavy metals. Comparatively few organic products contain residues of synthetic pesticides, common “ingredients” in non-organic food.

It promotes a healthy eco-system and is chemical-free

Its potential for environmental sustainability is the most compelling reason for supporting organic agriculture – a point that Karstens fails to make effectively. Industrial factory farming is destroying the planet and denying millions of animals, drugged with hormones and kept alive with antibiotics, the most basic levels of welfare.

McEvoy’s assessment of the chemicals used in organic food production betrays naïveté on his part. Yes, organic farmers use a small number of potentially harmful chemicals, but only in limited quantities and when ecological alternatives fail. To compare this with the billions of litres of fossil fuel-derived pesticides and fertilisers with which conventional farmers soak their fields, polluting waters and soils and poisoning millions of farm workers every year, is laughable.

Making a difference

As long as you avoid products grown far away or in heated greenhouses, organic farming is likely to have a lower carbon footprint, because of its capacity to sequester carbon in organic matter-rich soil and its reduced use of fossil fuels and their derivatives.

Setting an example

McEvoy may find this tedious, but I’d rather set an example than meekly munch the genetically-modified cornflakes dished up by the mainstream agri-industry.

Bonus: you won’t wake-up with a hangover

I’m with McEvoy on this one - impurities may add to your babalas, but it’s the alcohol that produces it in the first place.

In his final paragraph McEvoy dismisses any lingering thoughts that his piece was meant to be a joke by pointing a lazy and unconvincing hyperlink to someone else’s opinion. As far as his conspiracy theory involving oh-so-scary Woolies is concerned, I can do one better: think actual multinational agri-giants like Monsanto whose intention of taking control of the entire food chain from TerminatorTM seed to McTVMealTM are on public record.

The verdict

Go local, seasonal and organic wherever you can – it’s better for the planet and better for you.

- Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre.

Send your comments to Andreas Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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