Wetenschap - 14 november 2002

LS: Organic food

LS: Organic food

In response to the article on the student petition for Wageningen university to provide some organic food in its canteens ('Studenten voeren actie voor biologische producten in kantines', Wb 32, p.3).

The Executive Board feels that there is not conclusive evidence that organic products are better for our health. If only the same degree of caution was shown for industrialised products and associated farming techniques, then we may have been able to avoid BSE, the cocktail effect of multiple pesticide residues, the long term decline of the trace mineral content of fruit and vegetables, nitrates in the water system, and so on.

In fact there is evidence that organic products are higher in vitamin C, dry matter, and mineral content, whilst being free of pesticides, antibiotics, the majority of food additives and nitrates. No record has been found of any cases of BSE from animals born and reared organically, and research is beginning to confirm that organic crops are higher in phytonutrients which increase the crops' own level of disease resistance. Feeding trials have shown significant improvements in the growth, reproductive health and recovery from illness of animals fed on organic feed. At a cellular level, picture-forming methods, including biocrystallisation, clearly demonstrate the structural differences between organic and industrial produce, but more research is needed in order to understand what the implications of these differences mean for our health. Of course, healthy food means more than this, and the organic philosophy promotes the maintenance of freshness from farm to table whilst minimalising processing techniques which detract from the nutritional value of the food. I would be more than happy to provide references of this.

However, and as important as our personal health concerns or perhaps more so, we have a role as responsible and self-enlightened citizens, to support agricultural practices which avoid harm to the health and wellbeing of others (eg. the commonplace toxic poisoning of farmers in less industrialised countries through the handling of agrochemicals), through which farmers are remunerated on a fair basis for their role in stewardship of the land, and, of course, which enrich the environment.

Given the above, and WUR's concern for sustainability, it would seem to make more sense for all the canteens to serve organic (and fair trade) food de facto. And also to promote research which advances the knowledge frontier on the link between production methods, food produce and human health, albeit that such research may not attract funding from the corporate sector. In the meantime, those of us who do not want to wait for scientific evidence to confirm the common sense view that food which contains toxins and additives, and grown in impoverished soils, is likely to be less healthy, will continue to bring in our own organic sandwiches, given that the Board has decided not to provide us with a choice. Interesting that although WUR claims to be able to 'see the wood and the trees', it is the universities of Utrecht and Nijmegen, with less of an agricultural focus, which are offering such a choice.

Julia Wright, Communication & Innovation Studies