Organic Food

Reporter: Bryan Seymour

The organic revolution is about to erupt again. For the first time, we'll have a national standard governing where and how organic food is grown. It costs more but we're told it's healthier for us and the environment. You're about to hear a food scientist blow that perception apart.

A food scientist at the university of Melbourne, Dr David Tribe is adamant the organic industry is serving a feast of falsehoods. "It's very hard to find convincing evidence that it does benefit health. It's for people who want to feel happy about what they're doing in terms of environmental responsibility… good intentions about the environment are a big selling point."

"Organic is about a package, it's everything from animal welfare to produced without pesticides and fertilisers, produced without synthetic colours and flavours." Dr Andrew Monk is with the Biological Farmers Association, the largest certifier of organic food in Australia.

"It took us over half a century to prove scientifically that smoking was bad for your health, in the organic industry we don't take a view that we have that sort of time to sit back and pretend that we should wait for all the science to roll in to confirm what consumers are increasingly finding is the very evident and obvious" says Dr Monk.

What's obvious is that no-one can say for sure organic food is healthier. In fact, the main organic group in Britain was told to stop making that claim because it can't be scientifically proven true.

What about those nasty chemicals from pesticides and hormones? Deoxynivlenol in wheat, chaconine and solanine in potatoes or psoralen in celery, not to mention the cancer-causing rotenone! Well, they're all natural chemicals you can find in organic foods. In fact, one researcher claims in an average diet, we eat 10,000 times more natural carcinogens than synthetic ones. So why do we buy organic food at all?

Organic products comprise just 1% of the market here. Even if you are convinced it's better. How can you tell if something is really organic?

"Well look one of the problems is that just by looking at something you can't always tell whether it's organic." Christopher Zinn from Choice believes the new organic standard, to be published next month, will help shoppers.

"…and the main thing is that people have confidence in what they're buying. So we believe and we've worked with standards and other people in the food industry to come up with this standard. That will actually give people more confidence in what they're buying that it's really organic."

Yet, it will still be a voluntary code. There will still be a raft of different, official symbols.

There are 7 Australian organic certifiers with their own codes and logos, plus there are many, many more foreign logos that mean, well, who can say for sure?

Regardless, anyone who makes food, or cosmetics can simply use the word "organic" in their products.

One easy way to tell is price. The ordinary shampoo labelled 'organic' costs $20. The real organic shampoo costs $65.

"Check it out, see if you can taste the difference or sense the difference or ethically it's important for you to pay for the difference" says Christopher.

"If, as the organic people are pushing for, for the world food suppy to be turned over to organic farming and that is indeed their ambition, it will be an environmental disaster" says Dr Monk.

A major selling point for organics is its sustainability. Yet, Dr Tribe argues organic crops can only be fertilised with manure. If we switch completely to organic farming, we'd need to cut down the rest of our forests to provide grazing land for cattle.

Also, organic farming generally uses twice the land, twice the water and produces lower yields.

"That's going to kill the poor... That's going to starve the poor, it's going to drive up food prices … Not enough food from that strategy and it would be an environmental disaster, now that's worth talking about" says Dr Tribe.

"I think these kinds of things are taken out of context by scientists wanting to play with numbers and names... I guess we'd say let consumers determine that and it'll probably take another half century of science, like we did with smoking, to prove the evident and obvious consumers knew all along" adds Dr Monk.

And just to up the stakes, our organic industry is worth around $600m with exports expected to keep growing strongly.

Story Links:

Organic Food Exposed - Cosmos Magazine

Biological Farmers association