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August 2009



Food issues: myths and reality
The need for an assured supply of good quality food for all is something few people would question. But how this food should be produced and delivered is still the subject of heated debate. Nowhere is this truer than in the pampered European Union, where we have the luxury of choice and there is no longer a struggle merely to get enough to live on. As the saying goes, a man with enough food has many problems, but a man with too little food has only one.

It happens that in the UK this week there have been two authoritative reports published which cover two of the more contentious and political issues: so-called food miles and the supposed health benefits of organic food.

A report on the environmental impact of certain foods grown in different countries - work funded by Defra - was picked up by chance on the Cranfield university website, and has been reported on in the Independent and Farmers' Weekly. The food miles concept has been championed by those people who believe we should, as far as possible, eat food which has been produced locally, so avoiding the environmental cost of transport, whether by road, ship or plane.

But life is actually more complicated than that. For a start, much of the fruit which we take for granted in northern Europe, including grapes, oranges and peaches, cannot be grown in such a climate. Even a range of basic everyday commodities such as tea, coffee, spices, rice and non-subsidised sugar have to be imported.

More generally, people in a free society have become accustomed to the availability of a wide choice of produce outside the local growing season, and most would be loathe to give this up. And, on a broader socio-economic level, buying food from overseas will enable poor farmers to capitalise on perhaps the only comparative advantage they have in world markets.

The Cranfield report reinforces earlier work which shows that, even if you accept the environmental impact argument as the dominant one, some foods which are commonly grown in the United Kingdom can be produced using less energy in other regions. The study looked at seven commodities - tomatoes and strawberries from Spain, apples and lamb from New Zealand, potatoes from Israel and poultry and beef from Brazil.

Of these, production and transport of tomatoes, strawberries, poultry and lamb all had lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions the same products which had originated from UK farms. So, the message seems to be that the concept of food miles is a somewhat blunt instrument when making choices based on environmental impact. This is not to suggest for one moment that Brits should forgo the pleasures of fresh, locally grown strawberries, asparagus, cherries or other myriad delights when in season. But choose them for their eating quality rather than where or how they are grown. Equally, why should we not enjoy these and other foods when they are in season elsewhere?

Another message which is spread by enthusiasts is that organic food has health benefits. There has never been sufficient evidence to justify a health claim, although a combination of scientific work which shows a slightly elevated level of particular nutrients in specific foodstuffs with suggestions that, since no synthetic pesticides are used, then it must be healthier (another evidence-free assertion) have built up an image of organic food as "better". The unfortunate downside of this is that it consigns the great majority of the food eaten by most people to a second-class category.

However, a report commissioned by the Food Standards Agency has tried to address the issue by reviwing the literature for properly-conducted, peer-reviewed studies which test hypotheses on the healthiness of organic food. "Comparison of putative health effects of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review", by the Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, found 55 relevant studies, published between 1958 and 2008. The conclusion from this admittedly limited body of work is that there is no evidence of a health benefit from consuming organic rather than conventionally-grown produce.

Enthusiasts claim that organic farming can provide food security for the world, despite repeated studies which show that yields are lower and that there is simply not enough fixed nitrogen in soils to grow sufficient food without the use of synthetic fertilisers. Claims for reduced environmental impact may be justified on a localised basis, and many of the animal welfare standards are admirable. However, many people buy organic food on the basis that it is in some way healthier. This report should make people question this belief.

Organic campaigners are, not surprisingly, disappointed. Peter Melchett, the Soil Association's policy director, relies on the usual argument that more research needs to be done to demonstrate the benefits in which he believes. He adds "Also, there is not sufficient research on the long-term effects of pesticides on human health". This is the other side of the coin; in the case of nutrients in organic food, too little work has been done to find health benefits, but in the case of pesticides more work is needed to show they are harmful (despite the vast body of safety testing).

Nothing can be absolutely proved in science, but evidence accumulates to support certain hypotheses which are then generally accepted. However, when people start with a set of beliefs, no amount of rational, objective study will convince them they may be wrong. Soil Association members may continue to eat organic whenever possible, but they are unlikely to be any healthier than the rest of us.

The thoughts of ex-chairman Porritt
Sir Jonathan Porritt, a long-time leader of the environmentalist movement, is stepping down as first chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, while making it very clear that he is deeply disappointed in government performance. His primary complaint seems to be that politicians and civil servants are in thrall to Thatcherite economics. Essentially, he is saying that conventional cost-benefit analysis should not be the basis for truly sustainable development; instead factors which affect the environment and people's wellbeing should not be discounted.

This, of course, is the very same argument used by Sir Nicholas Stern when suggesting that large expenditures are justified now for the supposed benefit of future generations rather than for any good they might do people already born. This is a highly contentious view which, unsurprisingly, has not yet been widely adopted. But it is critical to the view we and our children will have of development. If the environmentalists win the argument, the general consensus that economic growth is good and that from this other societal goods can flow will be out the window.

At the same time, Sir Jonathan predicts that China and India will overtake Europe in developing a green economy in this century. But wishing for something will not make it happen, and all the indications at present are that these countries will not sacrifice economic growth - largely driven by fossil fuel-generated energy - for the sake of environmental benefits, unless the rich West pays for it.

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