TOPIC GUIDE: Organic food

"People should embrace organic food"

PUBLISHED: 01 Sep 2009

AUTHOR: Aaron Butterfield

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Since the early 1990’s, organic food has been in and out of the headlines, but following the release of research from the Food Standards Agency (FSA), claiming organic food is nutritionally no better than conventionally farmed produce , the issue has again been brought in to sharp focus [Ref: FSA]. Up until recently, organic was widely deemed the healthy option. Sales of organic produce have rocketed over the past ten years [Ref: BBC News] and every celebrity, [Ref: Organic Carsons] from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall [Ref: RiverCottage] to Michelle Obama [Ref: NY Times] has leant the movement their public support. Critics of organic say that the tide is now turning as the public become disillusioned with organic food. They argue that organic food is neither safer nor healthier than food produced by industrialised farming, just more expensive. [Ref: Cosmos Magazine]. But champions of organic, such as Peter Melchett of the Soil Association, say that regardless of nutrition ‘(if) it’s good for the countryside…it’s good for us’ [Ref: Independent]. Beyond nutritional content, the organics debate relates to broader concerns about the environment: proponents of organic food claim that with fewer chemicals in farming we could reduce the impact which agriculture has on the planet and our local environments significantly [Ref: OTA]. Eating organic, they argue, is the ‘ethical’ choice. But opponents disagree. Far from conveying an ethical or political position they suggest that ‘going organic’ is little more than a lifestyle choice and ‘middle class prejudice’ [Ref: spiked].

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What makes organic food organic?
In food production, the term organic describes a regulatory system which aims to replace artificial chemicals, like pesticides and fertilisers, with natural substances or alternative techniques. To qualify as organic, conventional non-organic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides are restricted - although usage is not completely prohibited. [Ref: Wikipedia]. For meat, livestock has to be raised without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics, and generally fed a ‘natural’ diet. Although the rules differ from country to country, generally genetically modified crops cannot be considered organic [Ref: Wikipedia].

Is organic food better for the consumer than conventional produce?
Responses to the FSA’s research have been varied. Some in the organic camp suspect foul-play on the part of pro-GM biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and accuse the FSA of pandering to big business. Others believe the study is simply flawed. They suggest that those nutrients in which organic is most rich, namely falvonoids and beta carotene, were written off by the FSA as unimportant. Most importantly, they argue, the agency failed to investigate the long term impact of chemicals and pesticides on human health. But critics argue that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that these nutrients improve health, nor any proof that exposure to low levels of pesticide residue is harmful [Ref: spiked]. Many others have argued that the issue of nutritional content is neither here nor there and that their own support of organic is based on issues like animal welfare and ethical farming [Ref: Grinning Planet], or that it just tastes better [Ref: The Times].

What can organic food do for the environment?
Supporters of organic food argue that organic farming can help to ‘save our environment’, by lessening the need for chemical fertilisers, whose manufacture is linked to high carbon emissions. Rodale, a pro-organic research institute, estimate that if all 434 million acres of US cropland were converted to organic practices, the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and pollution reversal would be equivalent to eliminating 217 million cars – nearly 88 percent of all cars in the US [Ref: Rodale Institute]. But critics say that we need to get real. They argue that whilst a turn towards organic might curtail emissions, the low crop yields that come with organic production have no hope of feeding a growing world population. Ref: COSMOS]. Some argue that the solution might lie with genetically modified crops, a technology which they argue has the capacity to increase yield [Ref: PG Economics Ltd] and reduce the environmental impact of food production [Ref: Guardian]. 

Is it wrong to move outside of the confines of nature?
There is a wider discussion, outside of the debate about health and environmental benefits, that asks whether organic is a progressive method of farming. Supporters say yes: in light of our growing awareness of the environmental hazards of conventional methods, organic enable us to work alongside nature to feed soil and control pests, whilst producing healthy, nutritious and natural food. In contrast, they suggest that conventional methods - and conversely the biotech processed food industry - are exploiting land and the wider environment for short-term gain and profit. But critics question the foundations of arguments relating to the benefits of working in sync with ‘nature’. They suggest that it is only by human efforts to move beyond the confines of the natural world over many thousands of years that agricultural produce is safe for us to consume today. In this respect, “Natural agriculture” says Professor Ottoline Lesyer “is a contradiction in terms” [Ref: Guardian]. By this account, the benefits of organic rest on a popular misconception of what is ‘good’ for us and act as a barrier to introducing the kind of agricultural innovations necessary to feed us all. [Ref: spiked] .


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Organic food exposed

Elizabeth Finkel COSMOS August 2009

Food Matters: Organic Food

Caroline Stacey BBC News July 2009

The great organic myths rebutted

Peter Melchett Independent 8 May 2008


A cancerous conspiracy to poison your faith in organic food

Joanna Blythman Daily Mail 3 August 2009

Organic food: the natural choice

Leo Hickman Guardian 30 July 2009

Organic Food: No flash in the pan fad

Peter Melchett Guardian 3 September 2008


Organic food and unhealthy snobbery

Rob Lyons spiked 3 August 2009

Starving? Let them eat Duchy Originals

Suzanne Moore Daily Mail 2 August 2009

It’s wrong to believe that nature is always best

Robin Mckie Guardian 2 August 2009

Who is ‘organic’ meant to be better for?

Tim Hayward Guardian 30 July 2009


Organic food gets a raw deal from the FSA

Geoffrey Lean Telegraph 31 July 2009

Why organic food can’t feed the world

Craig Meisner COSMOS 24 September 2007

The costly fraud that is organic food

Dick Taverne Guardian 6 May 2004


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Organic market report 2009

Soil Association April 2009

Benefits of Organic Agriculture as a Climate Change Adaptation

Adrian Muller Environment for Development March 2009

Is organic worth it?

Leo Hickman Guardian 30 March 2009

Are organic foods healthier than the alternatives?

Yes: Patrick Holden, The Soil Association; No: Julian Morris, Institute of Economic Affairs Guardian January 2008

FSA: Organic Report

Food Standards Agency


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

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