Written by Nera Kuljanic and Liliana Cunha
Do you regularly shop for organic products? Do you think they are ‘healthier for you’ compared to conventionally grown food? If you are unsure, do not be surprised. It is a very complex topic and science is not yet in a position to give a simple overall answer either. Nevertheless, both supply and demand of organic food in the EU are growing and there are without doubt a number of benefits associated with going organic.
On 18 November 2015 the EP’s Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel hosted a workshop on this very topic. MEP Momchil Nekov, member of the STOA Panel, chaired the event, during which seven experts took the floor to address different aspects of organic food production and consumption.
Agriculture and environment
Organic farming systems are proven to play a role in preserving biodiversity. Several practices in organic agriculture and animal husbandry could be used in conventional food production to decrease pesticide and fungicide use and fight antibiotic resistance. However, researchers in this field face some limitations. For example, while organic is well defined, conventional is not, so comparing the two is often difficult, if not impossible, especially considering variations in farm sizes and agricultural practices. Yields of agricultural products and the effects of farming on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity status, soil quality, and water and energy use, can vary significantly depending on whether they are assessed per area farmed or according to quantity of product.
There are studies pointing to the better nutritional content of organic foods in terms of lower pesticide and other agricultural chemical residues and higher content of compounds such as antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, for example, said Ewa Rembiałkowska, from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences. However, as Axel Mie from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences explained, even though organic milk can contain 60% more omega-3 fatty acids, considering the overall diet, this accounts for only 4% higher omega-3 intake.
Pesticides and health
Professor Grandjean, from the University of Southern Denmark, noted that there was some evidence pointing to health effects of prenatal and childhood pesticide exposure, including development retardation, manifested as lower IQ scores and suboptimal motor functions. He named this ‘chemical brain drain‘ and stressed that, with pesticides, not only the dose, but also the timing makes the poison. In the absence of more conclusive evidence on the health effects of pesticides, he called for ”precautionary action to protect brain development” and proposed better labelling and stricter controls as a means of minimising pesticide exposure.
Leading an active and healthy life
Looking at the bigger picture, Johannes Kahl, from the Dutch Food Quality & Health Association, explained that organic consumers tend to have healthier lifestyles. So, according to Bernhard Watzl, from the Max Rubner-Institut in Germany, the question is whether farming practices and farming-specific food qualities are less important for health than having a balanced diet, not smoking and exercising regularly. With only a relatively small number of studies involving humans, strong evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs. Many findings from the lab and animals are yet to be studied on humans.
Momchil Nekov concluded the workshop by underlining that nature and people were parts the same ecosystem: ”What is good for the environment is also good for health”.
The interesting conclusions of the workshop will be used to inform STOA research which will be submitted for peer review at a later date.