Organic (double) standards
It was inevitable that when Sir John Krebs, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency, first punctured the myths surrounding organic food, he would become a target for both personal abuse and zealous attempts to prove him wrong. So has his 'comeuppance' now finally arrived? Has the Soil Association now triumphed over the government bureaucrats at the FSA? Less than careful reading of the British Press might lead us so to conclude.
Research 'could calm organic row' suggested James Meikle in the Guardian. The FT led with Evidence 'supports claim on organic safety'. (Note the inverted commas in the headlines). And in the Independent we find Research shows organically-grown food is safer and healthier, but adding 'Insists Soil Association' above an otherwise very balanced article by Steve Connor. Elsewhere the Mail insisted that 'Organics help in cancer fight', but again in quotes. No qualification, however, in the Express where we simply read Organic bites back.
Such is the way of the news media that the crucial elements of the story – e.g. those which determine whether we should it take seriously or not – are often relegated to later paragraphs, which are read only by those with a strong interest in the subject. Given the pyramid structure of journalistic style the majority of readers will have turned the page before then. This was particularly evident in the Guardian's coverage which began: "the government's food standards agency yesterday hinted it would commission new research to establish whether organic food is safer and better for consumers than other foods ." Not until the penultimate paragraph, however, do we read:
"The food agency said the report 'taken overall, does not in our view make a convincing case that there is any significant difference between organic and conventionally produced food'"
The Express similarly relegated the FSA's view to the end of the article. Only the Scotsman got the balance right with Organic growers fail to convince on food quality.
Behind all of this coverage lies a study published by the Soil Association Limited where they claim: "A comprehensive review of existing research reveals significant differences between organically and non-organically grown food. These differences relate to food safety, primary nutrients, secondary nutrients and health outcomes demonstrated by feeding trials."
Commenting on this 'breakthrough' research Patrick Holden, Director of the Soil Association, said: "This report contradicts Sir John Krebs, Head of the Food Standards Agency, who said last year that there was not enough information available to be able to say that organic food is nutritionally different from non-organic food . These findings . [suggest] increased government support for organic production could have significant health benefits in addition to the environmental benefits already proven."
The 'research' itself, however, is not quite what it seems. What is not made clear in either the Soil Association's press release or the executive summary of the report is the difficulty which the author, Shane Heaton, encountered in demonstrating even the weakest effects present in over 400 studies of the nutritional value of organic food. To provide even 'indicative evidence' – i.e. results which are not statistically significant – he was obliged to discount many sets of results which did not fit with his line of thinking on the basis that they were 'methodologically flawed'. Even then, the Soil Association is forced to concede that the results only suggest the need for further research.
In essence, then, we have a non-story – one which does nothing at all to challenge Krebs' view that there is no evidence for the health benefits of organic food compared with conventionally grown foodstuffs, despite the media coverage ranging from uncritical reporting to pure hype. No journalist, for example, seems to have explored the credentials of Shane Heaton. If they had bothered to do so they might have been rather more concerned about his so-called 'results'.
Mr Heaton obtained a degree in business administration and subsequently trained with the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in London. The founding patron of the ION was Linus Pauling – the man responsible for the now entirely discredited idea that massive doses of vitamin C are effective in preventing colds and other ailments, and even cancer. Heaton is also a member of the Complementary Medical Association – a body not noted for its application of scientific rigour. The association claims, rather worryingly, that "the CMA is a highly media friendly, dynamic organisation. We average around 10 media exposures per week (TV, radio, print). Our speakers contribute regularly to the international media and the CMA is first point of call for most journalists/researchers working in the medical/ healthcare fields." The CMA's website, however, seems to have received a mere 269 visitors in its lifetime. Heaton also has what is described as "a successful nutrition practice" in West London, and he just happens to be a vegetarian and an organic gardener.
While it might be churlish to question Heaton's lack of 'detachment' in his research, his comments about methodology give rise to considerable unease. In an interview for Positive Health Shop he said:
"There are numerous studies demonstrating no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic produce. However, closer examination of these studies often reveals fundamental flaws that either invalidate their results or do not allow conclusions to be drawn. The remaining valid comparisons demonstrate a strong trend toward organic foods having more nutrients than non-organic foods."
The criteria Heaton uses to detect 'flaws' in studies and to determine that others involve 'valid comparisons' are not provided. There is a clear danger that those studies yielding results which did not fit with his personal commitment to organics and complementary medicine might have been subjected to rather more scrutiny for 'flaws' than those which supported his beliefs. This lack of objectivity would certainly make it impossible for the results of his work to be published in any peer-reviewed journal.
So why did none or our newspapers tell us any of this? If an industry scientist had made similar claims for a company's product, he or she would undoubtedly have been subjected to all manner of accusations of vested interests and financial motives. However, a member of an organisation which largely rejects mainstream principles of scientific verification and falsification, and who lacks any track record of research in any field, is subject to no such scrutiny at all. Such manifest double standards in the reporting of food and health issues do nothing to provide the public with balanced information which they can rely on to make sensible decisions about what they eat.
In the way that many people have been cynically induced into thinking that organic food is both 'free of chemicals' and 'better for you and the environment', it now seems that the perpetrators of such myths are to be viewed as independent, gentle folk whose 'research' we should trust and accept uncritically. No wonder the Soil Association Limited and the highly profitable businesses that it supports feel that they have scored a victory over the FSA.
August 7 2001