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Organic food – fad or fiction?

The ‘organic’ label seems to be everywhere lately (well, before the recession it was anyway), from the soil-covered potatoes on offer in your local farmers’ market to the chocolate-covered peanuts by the counter in your local Spar. But is this a movement that’s here to stay or is it merely a passing fad, which sat in nicely with the nouveau riches of the boom years?
The organic market in Ireland is currently worth around €66 million and it has been estimated that this figure will grow to €400 million in the next five years. In light of recent economic forecasts, it may be interesting to see how this prediction will stand up, given that the price of organic food in comparison to non-organic has led some to attribute its popularity to a fad for people with more money than sense. Organic produce is certainly more expensive than non-organic, often up to three times more expensive. Some mark-up is necessary as organic yields are lower and production costs higher. However, Dermot Jewell of the Consumer Association of Ireland recently spoke out on the high price of organic foods, saying the attitude of sellers is ‘charge as much as you think you can’. The popularity and price of organic produce in Ireland did rise with the Celtic Tiger so is it fair to view organic as nothing more than a luxury lifestyle choice for the rich?
There are degrees to which people engage with organic produce. A study by Teagsc found that 22 per cent of Irish consumers bought organic regularly, while 46 per cent did so sometimes. Similar anecdotal evidence indicates that some consumers are casual organic buyers whereas others live by an organic motto, going to lengths to ensure the naturalism of everything they consume. One shopper I spoke to at the Temple Bar Food Market believes there are two types of organic consumer, one who has the time and commitment to visit food markets regularly, perhaps with the incentive of having a particular allergy or health concern. The other is more like herself.
“I would buy organic on occasion,” she said. “It’s nice to visit the market and I like to stay healthy but it’s not practical for me to buy organic all the time because the food is more expensive, it doesn’t last and the produce is not accessible daily. Given the chance, though, I would only buy fruit and vegetables that have not been sprayed with pesticides.”
The remains of harmful pesticides on non-organic produce is an often cited argument in favour of organic. However, according to organic-sceptics, the pesticides used today break down to harmless molecules, which have no risk to health. This tit-for-tat argument reflects the general ongoing debate about organic food, most visible on the internet, where pro-organic and organic-sceptic websites and bloggers make various claims in support of their own views and to rebut counter claims. The reason the debate can be and is conducted in this way is because evidence on organic food is extremely contradictory – for every claim put forth by pro-organic opinion there is an equally robust and opposite claim by an organic sceptic. No doubt, vested interests are behind most of the opinions but the evidence on each side is equally convincing and the debate is confusing to say the least.
Organic foods are produced according to certain production standards, meaning they are grown without the use of conventional pesticides and artificial fertilisers, and that they were processed without radiation or food additives. Livestock are reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones. In most countries, organic produce must not be genetically modified. It’s fair to say that if nothing else organic errs on the side of caution.
There are, however, many additional claims made for organic produce, which range from improved taste to greater nutritional benefits, with heightened sex drive in between. The problem is that for each of these claims, there is a counter claim available and many high profile experts have dismissed the benefits claimed for organic. John Krebs, head of the UK Food Standards Agency has stated that in his opinion and in the opinion of the FSA, ‘consumers who buy organic produce are not getting value for money if they think they’re buying food with extra nutritional quality or extra safety’. Similarly, at a conference on organic food held by the Food Safety Authority Ireland earlier this year, speakers indicated that until well designed and strictly controlled studies were carried out, there is little evidence of the health benefits or higher nutritional quality of organic food. More interesting research put forth at this conference indicates that Irish buyers are not unaware of this. It was reported that only 32 per cent of Irish consumers feel that organic food is healthier and only 15 per cent believe that it is full of flavour and taste. If this is the case, what are the reasons behind the popularity of organic food in Ireland?
The claims that stand up best in terms of organic food seem to revolve around environmental benefits. Pauric Cannon of the Dublin Food Coop, an established organic food market, says that the food sold in the Coop is ‘a means to an end’ and that ‘end’ is an environmental one. Acknowledging that there is contradictory evidence on the benefits of eating organic, he says that ‘the one true claim that can be made is that growing organic improves soil quality and sustainability’. The sustainability argument does seem to stand up, at least in a local context. Local markets not only assure buyers of the quality of produce, but they help to sustain and bolster a local economy. Claims of the overall sustainability of organic farming have, however, been quashed in some quarters.
Anthony Trewavas, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at Edinburgh University has said, for example, that ‘developments in the past 25 years have shown how conventional agriculture can be much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than organic farming’. Again the claims and counter claims battle it out, leaving unanswered questions in their wake. Can organic production yield sufficient amounts to feed all of the population? Given that the organic milk used in the café at the Dublin Food Coop is bought at Lidl and 70 per cent of the organic milk market in US is controlled by one company, how local is organic produce? When much of the organic produce in supermarkets is flown around the world to end up on your plate, how green can it be?
Along with environmental goals, another aim of the Dublin Food Coop is the creation of a sense of community within the city. The group is based around the seven principles of a coop, which are on display as you enter the building and Cannon is enthusiastic about the idea of the coop as a community. Like many food markets around the country, it offers a vibrant and friendly atmosphere and in a return to traditional local standards, everyone seems to know one another, buyers and sellers alike, and there is plenty of friendly chat and exchange of information. However, he admits that though it has grown in popularity of late, in its new location in Dublin 8 there are few local members.
“Fairtrade and organic products are more expensive and regrettably it is the affluent members of society who can afford to enjoy their benefits”.
This seems to return us to the notion of organic as a fad for the rich. Of course, like all organic debate, it is not as simple as that. Buying local organic may not save your health or the world, but it does assure a certain peace of mind, it helps the local economy and it can foster a sense of community. Between the claims and the counter claims, one simple fact remains though – current regulations ensure that all food is safe to eat and that the environment is protected by law. So if you happen to be rich, and in the market for a fad, just remember; those potatoes in the farmers’ market may be doing their bit for the world, but when it comes to the chocolate peanuts in Spar, probably not so much.

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