News - January 24, 2017

Students write booklet on organic food

Anja Janssen

Biologische stellingen onder de loep (‘A closer look at organic statements’) is already due for a reprint. In this booklet, five honours students check ten popular statements about organic food, such as it being more animal-friendly or requiring six times as much land.

(Photo: Anja Janssen)

‘Many things are written and claimed about organic food that are not always well substantiated’, says Maria-Franca Dekkers. The student of International Land and Water Management, together with four other students, dug deep into organic food. The result of this two-year Honours project is an accessible booklet that consumers can use to make well-founded choices.

It took a while before the idea for a booklet came up. In the first few months of their project – which they carried out on top of their normal Bachelor’s study programme – the five students were mostly meeting, brainstorming and orienting themselves on the subject. This included activities such as interviewing experts at the Louis Bolk Institute and Bionext, visiting an organic exhibition and performing a consumer survey at Utrecht Central station.

Broken hip
‘That consumer survey provided us with several funny statements’, says Tessa Canoy, who has just recently finished her Bachelor in Food Technology. ‘One of those was by an elderly lady, who told us that she really believed in organic food, because it was good for her broken hip.’ But assertions such as ‘organic food is safer’, ‘it is healthier’ and ‘it is climate neutral’ also came up. ‘It was mainly from this survey that we drew subjects for our booklet’, adds Dekkers.

At first, they wanted to explain what organic farming and food are, starting with their history. ‘But we realised that such a layout would not be pleasant to read. We then came up with the idea of the statements’, tells Dekkers. ‘This way, you can address the reader more directly.’ Canoy: ‘That means you don’t necessarily have to read the booklet from cover to cover; you can also choose to read the themes that are more interesting to you.’

Six times as much land
Each of the five students investigated two statements based on scientific literature and interviews and wrote a chapter on that subject. They also gave each other feedback and asked professors for comments. Dekkers delved into the statement made by Louise Fresco who said that growing everything organically costs six times as much land.

‘The research revealed that organic farming uses about 20 to 25 percent more land’, says Dekkers. ‘But this also greatly varies per crop and country. For example, here in western countries where our production is very high, organic farming often somewhat lowers the productivity. But in countries where the production is much lower, in Asia and Africa, organic farming can even raise productivity, because it yields much better soil fertility.’

That nuanced image is something the two students see as a constant throughout the booklet. ‘You can’t simply say: organic is good or organic is bad, it really depends on what you personally think is important. For example, if you care about the well-being of animals, you could conclude that organic is really good, but if you focus more on CO2 emissions, it might be a bit less so.’

‘Biologische stellingen onder de loep’ by Houkje Adema, Tessa Canoy, Maria-Franca Dekkers, Kirsten Goijvaerts and Douwe van der Leest is available in Wageningen for 7.50 euros, from i.a. Kniphorst, molen De Vlijt, De Hoge Born, Vreemde Streken and Lazuur; it can also be ordered via