Is organic healthier than conventional

This is my 23th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.


A while back our local paper carried an article trumpeting a paper that had come out claiming that organic food was no better than conventional.

I was approached by a number of shoppers at the Karkloof Farmers market for my views on the article. This prompted me to look into the matter, even though the article was a bit sensationalist and seemed typical media hype.

The study was done by a Stanford University research unit and consisted of a review of all scientific papers on the subject since the 1950’s. This type of study is known academically as a meta-analysis. They gathered all the papers they could find, rejected those that fell out of their terms of reference, and summarised the rest.

In essence this is what they concluded: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

The media unfortunately focused on the first part of the paragraph and glossed over the second. Yet the second part of their conclusion is highly significant. It turns out that organic food has up to a 81% lower risk than organic food of having pesticide residues.

This on its own is a rather pertinent reason to choose organic food. This is one of the fundamental concerns of organics, the elimination of pesticides and herbicides and chemical fertilisers. This is not only for the benefit of human health but also to preserve the health of the soil and the environment.

Their conclusion on nutrition was not so clear cut either. It so happens that the researchers found evidence of higher levels of phosphorus and antioxidants in organic food. They also found higher levels of omega 3 fats in organic milk and chicken.

They rejected papers that showed organic food having higher vitamin levels as lacking sufficient rigor. Comparative crop quality studies are notoriously difficult to conduct as there are a large number of variables to control.

I will admit to being partisan as an organic farmer myself, when I say that on the whole I am confidant that organic food is a higher quality than conventional food. However I will admit that food grown by a good conventional farmer in good soils will be of better quality than that grown by a bad organic farmer in poor soils.

However if the bad organic farmer is ethical his produce will still be safer than the conventional as it will be toxin free.

Articles of this sort attacking organic food are becoming common lately. It seems that the organic movement is actually being perceived as a threat by conventional agricultural interests. This is certainly true in the USA where the article originated. Unfortunately the organic movement is still small in South Africa and at present poses little threat to conventional agriculture. There are only about 250 certified organic farms in the country, most of whom export.

There is a small dedicated bunch of people in this country working to put this right. I appeal to all of you who care, to support organic food in the interests of health and the environment and for the sheer love of good wholesome food.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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