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Newsletter 2nd November 2007

- Is organic food really better for you? - France takes a step back on agricultural biotechnology - A car-free Olympics

Is organic food really better for you?

This week there have been reports of a study which purports to show that organic food really is more nutritious, rather than the "lifestyle choice" which David Miliband suggested. The four year Low Input Quality Food project has been funded by the EU to the tune of £12 million and is coordinated by Professor Carlo Liefert of Newcastle University. The university's research farm was one of the sites where trials were carried out.

According to the Sunday Times headline, the message is "Official: organic really is better". Up to 40% increases in antioxidants are reported for fruit and vegetables, and a staggering 90% in milk. Professor Liefert is quoted by the BBC as saying "We have shown there are more of certain nutritionally desirable compounds and less of the baddies in organic foods, or improved amounts of the fatty acids you want and less of those you don't want."

And from the Sunday Times: "Like other studies, the results show significant variations, with some conventional crops having larger quantities of some vitamins than organic crops. But researchers confirm that the overall trend is that organic fruit, vegetables and milk are more likely to have beneficial compounds. According to Leifert, the compounds which have been found in greater quantities in organic produce include vitamin C, trace elements such as iron, copper and zinc, and secondary metabolites which are thought to help to combat cancer and heart disease."

However, since we don't know the basis for these figures – whether on wet or dry weight basis, and what the starting level of particular components were – it is difficult to judge how significant these findings might be. A 40% increase is indeed high, but would it in practice make any significant difference to the diet? It is also difficult to believe that such increases are reproducible from harvest to harvest: fresh produce is naturally quite variable in its composition.

Those eager to find out more and come to their own conclusions will have to wait, as the results are only to be published over the next twelve months. Only then will independent scientists be able to look at the data for themselves and form their own opinions. Until then, we can only assume that the figures are correct, but we don't know how typical they are. Unfortunately, when results like these are publicised before being published in a scientific journal, the suspicion is that the interpretation is what the researcher would like to believe rather than the full, unvarnished truth.

The Food Standards Agency – wrongly accused of being anti-organic because they have refused to confirm the assertions of the organic lobby – is said to be reviewing the evidence and we are sure they will do this very carefully. But the chances of a blanket "organic is better" opinion emerging do not seem high.

Produce can have different levels of particular nutrients for a number of reasons. At least this study should have addressed most of these by growing the same varieties on adjacent plots and presumably harvesting and analyzing them at the same degree of maturity. Any consistent differences – whatever they turn out to be – will be due to the intensity of production, and expression of secondary metabolites as protection against pest attacks.

Until the full results are published, we simply don't know what the reality is. But the simple fact remains that, no matter how good organic food may be for us, such low-input farming methods cannot provide enough food for a global population well on the way to 7 billion and likely to peak at around 9 billion by mid-century. Farmers will need to use the best available technologies and cultivation methods rather than be bound by rigid doctrinal rules if we are to have global food security.

France takes a step back on agricultural technology

We moves us neatly to a related issue. In a surprise move, President Sarkozy announced on 25th October the suspension of GM cultivation in France until a new independent body has been set up to review the situation. This move has been criticised by Commissioners Fischer Boel (Agriculture) and Dimas (Environment) as contrary to EU law. We should note, however, that this is the same Commissioner Dimas who recently spoke out against the possible authorization of two GM maize varieties for cultivation.

It seems that the politicians are once again taking the side of the anti-GM lobby against their own farmers. The new French president would doubtless have been happy to leave the issue well alone, but his hand seems to have been forced by the choices made by his farming compatriots. Insect resistant maize has been legal to grow in all EU member states for a number of years, and farmers in northern Spain have enthusiastically taken advantage of this, sowing 75,000 hectares this year alone. Their competitors across the Pyrenees, realising they were missing out, grew a few hundred hectares in 2005. This rose to 5,000 ha in 2006 and 21,000 ha this year.

It seems that, faced with a choice between two powerful lobbies – farmers and environmentalists – Sarkozy has made the green choice, at least for the time being. If the new body which will rule on crop biotechnology is truly independent, it will follow the scientific advice of both the European Food Standards Authority and national food safety bodies and allow French farmers to make their own choice of seeds to buy. We look forward to a time when science rather than politics has the upper hand, farmers can choose what to grow, and consumers can choose what they buy.

A car-free Olympics

The London Olympic games are less than five years away, and what originally looked like a comfortable period to plan and build for such a massive event must already be presenting challenges to those responsible. One important part of the jigsaw is getting people (estimated at half a million every day) efficiently and safely to and from the venues. The Olympic Delivery Authority has recently issued a revised plan which means that all spectators will have to use public transport, bikes or walk.

In practice, the great majority of people are likely to use public transport in any case, but opting explicitly to make no provision for cars means that more attention has to be given to upgrading and adding to the existing transport network to ensure that spectators' abiding memory of the games is not hot, crowded and unreliable Tube trains and buses. Unfortunately, the UK does not have a good record of delivery on public transport projects, despite the lip-service given to their importance by politicians.

We are woefully behind our continental neighbours in the move to high-speed trains (and, indeed, in the provision of rail services generally), and the Crossrail saga continues to drag on, in stark contrast to the construction of Parisian RER lines, for example. Doubtless the initial enthusiasm for holding the 2012 Olympics in London will fade, particularly when the bills come in, but significant improvements to the public transport infrastructure could prove a useful and lasting legacy.