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August 1st, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, organic, systematic reviews | 78 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 1 August 2009

This week the Food Standards Agency published 2 review papers showing that organic food is no better than normal food, in terms of composition, or health benefits. The Soil Association’s response has been swift, receiving prominent and blanket right of reply: this is testament to the lobbying power of this £2bn industry, and the cultural values of people who work in the media. I don’t care about organic food. I am interested in bad arguments. Theirs has three components.

Firstly, they say that the important issue with organic food is not personal health benefits, but rather benefit to the environment. This is a popular strategy from losing positions: “don’t talk about that, talk about this“. It is diversionary, and we can separately talk about the environmental issues with organic food, but right now, we are talking about the health benefits.

Secondly, they say that the health benefits of organic food are related to pesticides, are positive, and cannot be measured by the evidence that has been identified and summarised in the FSA paper. This, again, is gamesmanship.

Either you are proposing that there are health benefits which cannot ever be measured (because it is too hard to disentangle the health benefits of eating organic food from other beneficial features of peoples’ lives, for example, when you measure their health in a 30 year study). In this case you have faith, which is not a matter of evidence.

Or you are proposing that there are health benefits which could be measured, but have not been yet. In this case, again, you have faith rather than evidence, but you could at least start recruiting researchers now, using your £2bn, to investigate your beliefs with fair tests.

And thirdly, sadly, like many industries in a corner, the Soil Association seek to undermine the public’s understanding of what a “systematic review” is (which itself causes collateral damage to everybody’s ability to engage in debates on evidence).

They say that the report has deliberately excluded evidence to produce the answer that organic food is no better. The accusation is one of “cherry-picking”, and it is hard to see how it can be valid in the kind of study conducted by the FSA, because in a “systematic review”, before you begin collecting papers, you specify how you will search for evidence, what databases you will use, what types of studies you will use, how you will grade the quality of the evidence (to see if it was a “fair test”), and so on.

Now: what are the Soil Association angry about the FSA report ignoring? As an example, from their press release, they are “disappointed that the FSA failed to include the results of a major European Union-funded study involving 31 research and university institutes and the publication, so far, of more than 100 scientific papers, at a cost of 18million Euros, which ended in April this year”. They gave the link to www.qlif.org.

I followed this link and found the QLIF list of 120 papers. Almost all are irrelevant. The first 14 are on “consumer expectations and attitudes”, which are correctly not included in a systematic review of the evidence on food composition. Then there are 22 on “effects of production methods”: here you might expect to find more relevant research, but no.

The first paper (“The effect of medium term feeding with organic, low input and conventional diet on selected immune parameters in rat“) while interesting, will plainly not be relevant to a systematic review on nutrient content. The same is true of the next paper, “Salmonella Infection Level in Danish Indoor and Outdoor Pig Production Systems measured by Antbodies in Meat Juice and Faecal Shedding on-farm and at Slaughter“: it is not relevant.

Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of these are unpublished conference papers, and some of them are just a description of the fact that somebody made an oral presentation at a meeting. The systematic review correctly only looked at good quality data published in peer reviewed academic journals, and with good reason: we know that conference papers are unreliable sources of information, often change between conference and publication, and, in fact, we know that conference papers are often never published at all.

This raises the issue of transparency: we want the methods and results of scientific research to be formally presented, and accessible by all. If a government report on anything relies substantially on unpublished and inaccessible research then we are correctly concerned: in fact, I raised such concerns, two weeks ago, because the key piece of evidence presented by the Home Office to justify retaining DNA from innocent people who have been arrested was an incompetently presented piece of unpublished and incomplete research.

I could go on, but in reality, this is not about organic food. The emotive commentary in favour of organic farming bundles together diverse and legitimate concerns about unchecked capitalism in our food supply: battery farming, corruptible regulators, or reckless destruction of the environment, where the producer’s costs do not reflect the true full costs of their activities to society, to name just a few. Each of these problems deserve individual attention.

But just as we do not solve the problems of deceitfulness in the pharmaceutical industry by buying homeopathic sugar pills, so we may not resolve the undoubted problems of unchecked capitalism in industrial food production by giving money to the £2bn industry represented by the Soil Association.


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78 Responses



  1. Methuselah said,

    August 1, 2009 at 1:41 am

    Isn’t this the Streisand Effect?

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect

    Not sure if this has been mentioned before.

  2. jrshipley said,

    August 1, 2009 at 1:41 am

    At the beginning of your commentary you charge respondents to the study with changing the subject. At the end, however, you admit that the main reasons people favor organics are legitimate and not addressed by the survey. So exactly who is changing the subject here?

    On the other hand, I agree fully with your assessment of the general damage done when people can’t face up to facts and make poorly supported claims of bias.

  3. Methuselah said,

    August 1, 2009 at 1:42 am

    Oops – wrong thread. Sorry.

  4. Statto said,

    August 1, 2009 at 1:54 am

    The Soil Association are obviously scrambling, as you’d expect a beleaguered industry body to be; it’s undoubtedly underhanded to take ill-founded potshots at the systematic review, but these guys are right to an extent, aren’t they?

    They’re not responding to the study, which openly admits its sole focus was nutritional content; they’re responding to headlines like ‘Organic “has no health benefits”’, ‘Organic food not healthier, says FSA’, or Tweets like ‘It’s a by-word for “posh”: organic food no better for health’. These roundly conflate the issues of nutrition and pesticides, and it’s not gamesmanship to point that out when countering catch-all, dismissive summaries like those. Though you may consider the narrative regarding provability of health problems associated with pesticides confused, that does not alter the validity of the point that, for whichever reason, we simply don’t know at present if pesticides residues are bad for people’s long-term health. To imply that they are safe is as much a matter of faith as saying they aren’t.

    The environmental points are irrelevant to the debate at hand, but I can’t help but feel a little sympathy for ‘yes, but’ arguments when the organic lobby has been confronted with such a one-sided torrent this week.

  5. Picklish said,

    August 1, 2009 at 2:20 am

    indeed. two wrongs will never make a right, as we were told as kids. But, two positives can make a negative. ‘yeah, right!’ i hear you say….In all seriousness, the £2billion industry known as ‘organic’ essentially is unchecked capitalism in food production, in the same way that medicalisation of non-ailments by big pharma is equivalent to false ‘cures’ of homeoquakery.

  6. fontwell said,

    August 1, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Apologies for not listening to Ben’s first point but speaking as someone who only ever buys organic based on the means of production, I always suspected that any claims about its nutrition (and indeed flavor) were probably tosh. If the soil association etc have been making claims like this then they deserve to get picked up on it but they never should have gone down that road in the first place.

    Every time I hear this study mentioned on the news at the moment it is a bit like hearing that battery chickens are just as nutritious as free range ones.

    Several people (in forums) have alluded to the production of organic food being no better for flora and fauna than non organic. Now, that is something I would be interested to hear more about.

  7. aestivum said,

    August 1, 2009 at 8:41 am

    Great article Ben. I trawled through the ‘popular’ press on Thursday to see how this work had gone down with the hacks – was impressed with the response from Daily Express who managed to pick up on the point that the public, and particularly concerned parents, have been systematically conned by the Soil Association’s continuous dissembling and deceit. Well done them.

    More disappointing, and more predictable, was the Daily Mail. They weren’t having any of it, and finished their article with a totally unsourced claim announcing it has been “proved” that farmers’ children born in summer have been shown to be “less intelligent” than those born at any other time of year, on the alleged grounds that more pesticides are used in summer. Even the utterly vested interests of the SA won’t make these kind of claims, demanding 30 year longitudinal studies as part of their obfuscation technique – how do they get away with this stuff?

    aestivum

  8. NorthernBoy said,

    August 1, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Fontwell, how about just starting with the fact that yields are lower on organic farms, so the farms need to be bigger, leaving less unfarmed land for the wildlife. That’s a pretty clear route to organic farms being worse for the environment.

    Then, just for interest, why don’t we look at the sort of farming practices that gave us avian flu and swine flu. These “natural” products very likely emerged in small, organic family run farms, where animals and people mixed, not on “factory farms”.

    It really, really is not so simple as “organic good, normal bad”. I’ve avoided organic for years, and intend to keep doing so, for health and environmental reasons.

  9. benko said,

    August 1, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Hold on. This is not quite up to Ben’s usual high standards at all, and potentially quite misleading.

    What Dr Goldacre says is this: “This week the Food Standards Agency published a review paper showing that organic food is no better than normal food, in terms of composition, or health benefits.”

    What the review on health benefits actually said was this:

    “In conclusion, because of the limited and highly variable data available, and concerns over the reliability of some reported findings, there is currently no evidence of a health benefit from consuming organic compared to conventionally produced foodstuffs. It should be noted that this conclusion relates to the evidence base currently available on the nutrient
    content of foodstuffs, which contains limitations in the design and in the comparability of studies. ”

    So the review doesn’t show that there are no health benefits, only that there is no good evidence of benefit (or for that matter harm) to health. This may be because there really is no health benefit (as Dr G rashly assumes) or it may just be that no-one has done a good enough study to detect any benefit (or harm) from eating organic food.

    At the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld, I would recommend everyone repeats the mantra “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” at least 17 times a day and remembers the famous (and methodologically rigorous) systematic review published in the BMJ (www.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/327/7429/1459) which concluded that there is no good evidence from well designed trials that there is any health benefit in wearing a parachute when jumping out of a plane.

  10. aestivum said,

    August 1, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Hi Fontwell, there’s an excellent review by Anthony Trewavas covering the environmental claims of organic agriculture:

    A critical assessment of organic farming-and-food assertions with particular respect to the UK and the potential environmental benefits of no-till agriculture

    www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T5T-4BWCBY3-3&_user=10&_coverDate=09%2F30%2F2004&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=e207f3998b617c58ccbd9831626f7261

    Their claims simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. By fossilising agriculture in the 1930s we depend on repeated cultivation to control weeds, thereby destroying soil ecosystems and endlessly and unnecessarily releasing endless carbon.

    Their superior animal welfare claims are also risible – the SA actively promote homeopathy as medication to farm animals – thereby causing huge amounts of unnecessary suffering in painful conditions such as mastitis in dairy cattle.

    And as for the pesticide residue argument – plants (and fungi) produce the overwhelming majority of poisons in the environment because it’s generally not in their interests to be eaten. Just because a poison is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean that it’s better or worse for you than a synthetic alternative, whatever your possibly neo-religious viewpoint dictates. Ricin is right up there with some pretty evil nerve agents as far as toxicity is concerned, and don’t even get me started on mycotoxins…

  11. Dead Badger said,

    August 1, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Yeah, I was coming here to say something similar to benko. In particular with regard to observable health benefits, the authors explicitly bemoaned the almost total lack of proper data, and said that further study was needed if proper conclusions were to be drawn. And several of the nutrient measurements had error bars so large as to be almost totally useless (beta-carotene being an example). No advantage was found; but the absence of an advantage was not really proven, and the authors were careful not to claim as much. The FSA press release you linked heavily overstates the results in its first paragraph, too:

    An independent review commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shows that there are no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food.

    Completely agreed on the bizarre accusations of cherry-picking, mind you. And note even Ben’s colleague Karen McVeigh in the Guardian got suckered into the claim that the study had proved organics have “up to 53% more beta-carotene.” Yeah, including the crap studies, and with error bars of plus or minus 77%. I.e. the difference is statistically indistinguishable from zero. This was talked up as if the authors were hiding a massive increase in an appendix. Say whut?

  12. jodyaberdein said,

    August 1, 2009 at 10:39 am

    I have often found it irritating that the organic food movement has largely been promoted by suggesting the food is healthier.

    Personally we get an extremely pricey organic box weekly, but the main motivation has been reduced food miles and the fact that the fertilisers are not produced by burning oil.

    It has often been a source of discomfort that by doing this we support dubious health claims. I remember seeing Patrick Holden squirm at the Royal Institute when Richard Dawkins picked him up on using homeopathy to treat unwell animals. And then there’s all the stuff about not using pesticides, except of course tonnes of copper sulphate, pyrethroid, bacterial toxins etc.

  13. SteveGJ said,

    August 1, 2009 at 10:58 am

    @benko

    Apologies for picking on you, but I see the mantra “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” repeated so many times and it is just plain wrong. From that, I would conclude that performing sonar surveys of Lock Ness, and failing to find any evidence of a monster residing there, is not evidence of the monster’s absence. Well that’s plain crazy, but it is the line that you are promoting. The absence of evidence in that case is very good evidence of absence. “Absence of evidence is not proof of absence” is reasonably enough, but it can be damn good “evidence of absence” in a properly controlled study.

    I think people also need to be very careful about praising “natural” farming methods and decrying the bad effects of unbridled capitalism. Firstly it’s not unchecked – the food and agricultural industry is heavily regulated. Ben ought to know better than to imply it runs amok. For virtually all of recorded history, food adulteration was an ever present fact (the Romans knew all about it). It was practiced by many small independent producers, as well as large, and had been since time immemorial. It was a major scandal in Victorian times where bad and adulterated food was rife. Food was a prime spreader of disease – the dairy industry alone was involved with the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

    One of the very reasons that the large corporations that Ben seems to so detest came to have such a powerful role in the food industry is that, with very good reason, people trusted them. When the bread that you ate could have contained lead, chalk or any number of other things introduced by small suppliers and retailers, the name of Birds, Kellogs, Heinz or whatever came as a guarantee of quality and safety. The fact is that the food in our country now is safer and more varied than at any time in our history. That doesn’t mean our diets are of course – but if we’ve become fat, lazy and addicted to convenience; well that’s a choice many of us have made (despite which we appear to be living longer than ever before).

    Ben is very good on the science, but I think his hold on economics and social history is rather slanted and populated with simplistic concepts. Until people stop playing these stupid heroes and villians games then we will continue to get these ridiculous, polarised views.

    One final bit on the the organics movement – whilst many of their aims are laudible, at root they seems to be profoundly irrational in the manner of a faith group. For instance, approved the use of copper based fungicides on the basis they are traditional, rather than safer modern alternatives. They also appear to have decided that genetic engineering is inherently dangerous, whilst accepting selective breeding which is essentially uncontrolled and lead to serious issues of animal welfare.

  14. Psychedelia Smith said,

    August 1, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Meat juice? What the hell is meat juice? And, um, where can I get some?

    Sounds an awful lot more tasty than faecal Shreddies. or whatever.

    aestivum – superb link.

  15. benko said,

    August 1, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    SteveGJ:

    Performing sonar surveys of Lock Ness, and failing to find any evidence of a monster residing there *is* evidence of the monster’s absence (though doesn’t rule out a particularly wee beastie or a monster transparent to sonar: please don’t dash all my hopes). Not performing the thorough carefully-designed comprehensive surveys would be absence of evidence. From my reading of exec summary (I certainly didn’t bother to read the whole report) it sounds like we are closer to latter situation with the organic health monster.

  16. fontwell said,

    August 1, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    aestivum and NorthernBoy,

    This isn’t an issue that gets me overly worked up so I’ve never done any proper investigation. However my limited personal experience of greenery and wildlife on organic farms compared to the gigantic seemingly sterile fields in most of the arable countryside suggest that it’s not as straight forward as plain productivity.

    aestivum, I couldn’t read the link without registering – which I didn’t do.

    It is a real shame that there is so much obvious bollox in the organic movement because at its heart are real issues about concern for animal welfare and the environment, which I see as a good thing. I guess that I’m prepared to buy some organic stuff just because they do care about these things. Hopefully they will get the solutions correct eventually.

    It’s really about attitude. Things like not trying to grow identical carrots the size of your forearm, keeping hedges and leaving bigger boarders round fields. These are things you find on organic farms as a matter of course.

    Anyway, the main reason to go to my local organic supermarket is that the checkout queues are so much quicker.

  17. colmcq said,

    August 1, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    “Lock Ness”

    It’s LocH Ness. Bloody English.

  18. Tessa K said,

    August 1, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Damn you, Dr Ben, I thought it was going to be an article about chocolate.

  19. benko said,

    August 1, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    And damn you, colmcq, you’re right. I should have said Lock Ness [sic].

  20. SteveGJ said,

    August 1, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    @benko

    Indeed a sonar survey wouldn’t detect a monster invisible to sonar. But then what is the evidence for the existence of and large aquatic animal of apparently reptilean appearance which is transparent to sonar waves? I’m not an expert in these things, but I rather suspect that those who did the survey had done a lot of background research to find out if sonar waves are effective at detecting large animals submerged in water. Of course it is possible to postulate that one might exist, but does the weight of evidence indicate it is likely? So again – not proof, but strong evidence of absence.

    Of course if the reason is that we haven’t looked in the right places for the right thing in the right way then that’s a different thing (I have no evidence there is a pink yacht moored off Guernsey, but then I haven’t looked so I can’t really say that there I have any evidence it doesn’t exist). The point is that the unqualified statement “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is a nonsense. Read what I said and you’ll see that I specifically stated it can be extremely good evidence of absence where there is a properly controlled study.

    Endlessly repeating a mantra (well maybe not endlessly, you merely suggest at least 17 times a day – presumably that prime number has special significance) just reinforces the substitution of what is a fundamental point about scientific evidence with an apparently profound, but really highly misleading, slogan. As somebody might say, I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated.

    Apologies to the Scots (and for that matter the Irish) for mispelling Loch as Lock. I can only put it down to an unconscious tendency to spell everything phonetically (foneticly?) which catches me out all the time.

  21. Henry said,

    August 1, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Another thing that hasn’t really come out in the media reporting is the more general, and lazy, assumption that because foods contain high levels of certain chemicals they are inherently ‘good’. This assumption in itself leads to sloppy reporting and, as I discussed with my ‘work hat’ on, the propagation of a myth that can actually lead to real harm:

    scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2009/06/24/what-are-antioxidants-and-are-they-good-for-us-part-1/

    But also I have a lot of sympathy with SteveGJ’s view that

    “Until people stop playing these stupid heroes and villians games then we will continue to get these ridiculous, polarised views.”

    The wholesale labelling of organic food as ‘homeopathic quackery’ misses the wider point that we have an unsustainable agricultural production method and there are people trying to do something about it. By all means point out flawed arguments but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  22. muscleman said,

    August 1, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    @Benko & Dead Badger

    Ben addressed your points in the bit where he points out that in the absence of evidence either way, the hypothesis that ogranic food is healthier is a faith position. You are welcome to bet with your money that it is true, all Ben is saying is that there is no good evidence that it is true so it is a bet.

    My bet right from the start has been that it is a marketing scam, sure some are ‘true believers’ and are acting in good faith, but it is still faith.

    The position that ‘conventional’ food is bad for us is counteracted by the absence of people getting sick or not living longer by eating such foodstuffs. In contrast we are living longer and healthier lives than ever. Since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring our detection systems for pesticide residues have increased by several orders of magnitude. By the analytical methods of that time conventional foodstuffs would pass as organic. We only know there are any residues there because our methods for detecting them can detect the extremely minute most amounts.

    BTW if a plant is stressed by not being protected by pesticides it will produce its own that have a similar range of targets in pathogens and insects as the ones we produce (let alone that we use many based on plant sources like Derris dust). So you are getting your pesticides regardless. The advantage of conventional food is that you know how much you are getting, with organic you have no measure.

    All that is before you get to the utterly arbitrary nature of basing the whole organic method on freezing agricultural technology back before WW2. Why then? because then they could still use copper sulphate. Hardly the best basis for ‘chemical free’ food, is it? As I said ‘organic food’ is a well intentioned marketing scam.

    So buy Free Range instead, except that mortality rates amongst free range chickens is higher than amongst their barn raised brethren. They die from predation or exposure or pick up more infections from the wonderfully ‘organic’ great outdoors. So don’t pretend its better for the birds. It’s the same for them as for us, our health improves when we move from earth floored houses to ones with raised wooden floors.

    Also with free range pork you get higher piglet mortality as the mothers roll on them. Might taste nicer, just don’t fall for the ‘better for the animals’ ploy. It doesn’t necessarily stand to reason that ‘natural’ is better. Natural includes getting sick, getting eaten by predators and dying of cold/heatstroke as well. Our domestic stock are also too far down the domestication route to do too well in the wild, we have made them too dependant on us and having done so we have a moral need to look after them properly which does not include denying them medicine or exposing them to preventible peril.

  23. rueroy said,

    August 1, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Fresh from BoingBoing today.

    www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/3777316121/

  24. cyclopath said,

    August 1, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    @muscleman

    I disagree with your suggestion that the higher mortality rates of free range livestock (for which, I might add, you haven’t included any references for us to check) is necessarily worse for the individuals or the population of said livestock.

    I think that given the choice of living in a cage to the age of 80 versus having increased freedom of movement, socialisation and breeding at the increased risk of mortality and perhaps living to sixty if I’m lucky, I’d certainly choose the latter. I don’t mean to anthropomorphise pigs and chickens, but longevity and wellbeing are not necessarily equivalent.

  25. muscleman said,

    August 1, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    @Cyclopath

    i can’t be bothered formatting them all, Google for

    ‘mortality rates free range chickens’

    It was all over various media earlier in the year, have you had your ears and eyes closed?

  26. SimonW said,

    August 1, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    I think for balance Ben better cover the original press coverage of the FSA paper.

    The FSA sponsored review concluded that only 3 studies met their criteria for assessing health benefits from nutrients in Organic food. It may not be cherry picking, but it does suggest the conclusions are unlikely to be the final answer.

    The nutrient paper also notes that organic food is often significantly different in nutrient composition. Directly contradicting some of the rubbish put out by Quackwatch on the topic. It is just unclear if this different nutrient profile is relevant to human health.

    I think a better summary of the FSA papers would have been “we know next to nothing about nutrition”.

    Personally I’d be very surprised if organic eggs weren’t nutritionally very different from the average conventionally farmed egg. Since there is a visible difference in the egg colour and texture. I don’t need a study to tell me that, it is obvious when I cook omelettes. However my observation is useless as far as a systematic review goes because it isn’t published in a peer reviewed journal and only included one supermarket. Eggs are the only organic food I specifically buy on a regular basis.

    Now it may be that this difference isn’t relevant to human health (it does make better omelettes). All this study tells us is that no one has looked at it with the strict criteria this study required.

    Worse still health wise I’m (and here I’m not alone) probably better off not eating either type of egg, because my body mass index exceeds 21.

  27. el wisty said,

    August 1, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    @Cyclopath

    The study

    href=”http://www.actavetscand.com/content/51/1/3″>www.actavetscand.com/content/51/1/3

  28. Charlotte said,

    August 1, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    muscleman @25, I eventually found that Swedish study you’re referring to. The authors say

    “the results reflect the unique situation in Sweden during the years 2001–2004, when the change of housing systems from conventional battery cages was at its peak…during the study period many new egg laying farms were established by people with no or little prior experience of keeping commercial laying hens, and these producers often chose the new aviary systems. Hence, the health status of birds in free range and litter based systems should improve as more experience and knowledge are gained.”

    Rates of cannibalism were higher in larger flocks, which is precisely why organic flock sizes are limited. Do you have anything else? I couldn’t find anything particularly relevant on Google Scholar. Also, while there might be higher rates of infection in free-range birds, there are going to be population benefits where there’s not blanket use of antibiotics. These things aren’t entirely simple. Free-range birds taste better though :)

    Northern boy @8:

    Then, just for interest, why don’t we look at the sort of farming practices that gave us avian flu and swine flu. These “natural” products very likely emerged in small, organic family run farms, where animals and people mixed, not on “factory farms”.

    The only mass outbreak of H5N1 in the UK so far was at the small, organic, family run Bernard Matthews plant in East Anglia. If you have data could we see them please? And I’m not particularly worried about lower yields on organic farms when we throw so much food away and still have crop surpluses in the EU. (Link to pdf in the news report, sorry, I’m having technical problems.)

  29. Willu said,

    August 2, 2009 at 1:01 am

    I have a rather tangential point which I include more for general education than complaint: in different fields, different types of publications carry different weight. I have no doubt that the conference papers that are dismissed above are worth dismissing. However, in computer science most of the top articles are conference papers. They are peer reviewed and the top conferences have very low acceptance rates. Journal publication is often used for review articles, which are great but rarely seminal. Apart from that it takes too long for journal articles to come out, so work in journals is often behind the rest of the field.

  30. Bikermondo said,

    August 2, 2009 at 3:43 am

    From all read above and around it appears that the health benefits or lack thereof for organic food is presently a matter of belief with no compelling evidence one way or the other. No news there then. Indeed expecting a definitive binary conclusion for a metric such as health benefits is to my mind quite obviously unattainable (but then I’m not a nutritionist). What would be more interesting is how the reports’ conclusions came to be represented in the way they were in both the press release and its subsequent press and populist interpretation as admirably disected by Benko and Statto above. For example, does a Daily Telegraph correspondent moonlight at the FSA?

    That given, the responses above do provide excellent examples of the varying manifestations of humanism and an example of the attempted rubbishing of one mantra using the combination of substitution (with evidence of absence is evidence of absence) and subsequent application of reductio ad absurdum did make me chuckle.

  31. benko said,

    August 2, 2009 at 7:42 am

    SteveGJ, I recommend that you type “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” into Google, click the “I’m feeling lucky” button and the read the excellent article that will appear on your screen by Martin Bland and Doug Altman (two of the most respected statisticians in the world and champions of EBM). The article is titled – you’ve guessed it – “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. If you still think the phrase is a nonsense I suggest you send an email to Martin and Doug and explain why. They’re both friendly chaps and I’m sure they will listen to your arguments carefully.

    Back to that monster: if a very extensive survey of Loch Ness had been conducted with exquisitely sensitive sonar equipment then failure to find a monster would be good evidence of absence (though even exquisitely sensitive sonar equipment wouldn’t be able to detect a monster the size of a midge). If instead, a survey of a small part of the loch had been conducted using rickety old sonar equipment that was known to be unreliable and see monsters where they didn’t exist and fail to see them where they did, then failure to find a monster would be only very weak evidence of absence, and it would be reasonable to conclude there was an absence of strong evidence of absence of a large monster (now look what you’ve made me do: absence of evidence of absence. Blimey).

    musleman, if all Ben were saying is that there is no good evidence of health benefits I wouldn’t have a problem. After all, that’s what the authors concluded and they seem like a reasonable bunch. What he actually said is that the study showed that “organic food is no better than normal food…in terms of health benefits”. This is simply inaccurate. And it’s lazy journalism which is one thing I thought we were supposed to be fighting against. So my j’accuse stands. Now, what did Joe Strummer say about fucking nuns…

  32. jonnie falafel said,

    August 2, 2009 at 9:30 am

    “Firstly, they say that the important issue with organic food is not personal health benefits, but rather benefit to the environment. This is a popular strategy from losing positions: “don’t talk about that, talk about this“. It is diversionary, and we can separately talk about the environmental issues with organic food, but right now, we are talking about the health benefits”…..

    You nearly lost me there Ben… It’s a common mistake in the Daily Mail view of the world to see Organic farming only in terms of “health benefits” for individuals. The public need to be strongly reminded that the real advantages of organic farming are about sustainability, bio-diversity & challenges to corporate power…. it’s legitimate to say these things and not diversionary. Monty Don recently argued (at a Soil Assoc meeting) that the term ‘organic’ should be dropped in favour of ‘sustainable’ in order to counter the erroneous view that organics are only about benefits to individuals, a view this current flurry tends to reinforce.

  33. vaciterrian said,

    August 2, 2009 at 10:46 am

    Imagine my surprise at getting my Sunday papers to find this story on the front page of the Sunday Herald: www.sundayherald.com/news/heraldnews/display.var.2523458.0.0.php. Call me a jaded old meany but this looks suspiciously like a further attempt to move the goalposts.

  34. doughboy said,

    August 2, 2009 at 11:18 am

    call me naive but isn’t the mortality rates in both free range and intensive methods of poultry production running at around the 100% mark. largely due to the influence of human predation i should imagine.
    however, to suggest that intensive rearing of poultry is in any way a good thing is, at best, akin to polishing a turd and, at worst, morally and intellectually derelict.

  35. Dudley said,

    August 2, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Psychedelia Smith said,
    August 1, 2009 at 11:23 am
    Meat juice? What the hell is meat juice? And, um, where can I get some?

    PSmith, I believe you’ll find meat juice freely available in the bushes of Clapham Common, between about 2 and 4 a.m.

  36. JimR said,

    August 2, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Paula Crossfield, Managing Editor of civileats.com, comments in “Organic Versus Conventional Food: UK Report Flawed” in The Huffington Post at:

    www.huffingtonpost.com/paula-crossfield/organic-versus-convention_b_247801.html

  37. Wyatt Earp said,

    August 2, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Is it me, or is the news that organic food has no health benefits kind of, really, not news at all?

    What I do find, or what I think I find (what with confirmation bias and all that, it’s as well to be cautious), is that an organic label on meat (and this only works for meat) seems to be associated with quality. I doubt it has much to do with lack of pesticides, still less with the avoidance of “allopathic” veterinary treatments, but it may have something to do with things like slower rearing, lower flock densities and a more varied diet.

    Or it may simply be that an organic label is associated with higher prices, and higher prices correlate positively with quality.

    Or I may be imagining the whole thing (though I suspect not).

    Then there’s the sustainability question, and the welfare question. Counterarguments to be had aplenty there, of course, but not yet, for my money, conclusive ones.

    Overall, despite the silly, hippy character of a lot of the organic movement, I don’t think the case that it’s [i]all[/i] a lot of nonsense has yet been proved.

    Churchill once said, after he’d been criticised for being publicly nice about Stalin, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” When intensive farming is the common enemy, I feel about the organic mob rather as Churchill did about Uncle Joe.

  38. jonnie falafel said,

    August 2, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    I’m going to come out now! I buy organic food. I buy it because it’s grown on five organic farms quite close to me… I buy it because it’s local (low food miles – I don’t need a car to get to it), seasonal & I have come to know the people who produce it… & there’s nothing remotely “hippy” about them! I buy it because it’s very good quality & I’m always seeking alternatives to supermarkets (who generally sell cheap crap and degrade the quality of our lives). I oppose the organic monocultures (e.g. Spanish salad producers in arrid Andalucia) that were created to serve the year round needs of Northern Europeans. I don’t care for narrow nutritionalist approaches to diet (for goodness sake, it 21st century 1st world – we got all the vitamins we need)… & I don’t give two hoots about the Beta Carotene content of this spinach or that carrot… but I do enjoy eating them.

  39. Staphylococcus said,

    August 3, 2009 at 2:12 am

    @ jonnie falafel #32

    You’ve totally missed Ben’s point. The study wasn’t about other benefits of organic farming. It was about nutritional content. Shifting the goalposts (the many valid points made above about how this study didn’t truly report a negative, therefore no goalpost shifting was actually required, notwithstanding…) to argue on different ground is not an appropriate reply. End of story.

    Whilst the methods of the organic farming industry are certainly worth discussing, in this case how is that a resonable response to a question of food content?

  40. Alexa said,

    August 3, 2009 at 2:47 am

    At least you Brits just have overpriced organic produce to deal with. In Australia the biodynamic movement is gaining more and more popularity. Obviously it isn’t enough to stop using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, you also have to bury the organic mixtures in a cow’s horn and plant crops during the proper zodiac cycles. The only difference I’ve ever seen is price – it’s even MORE expensive than standard organics.

  41. msjhaffey said,

    August 3, 2009 at 8:04 am

    I expect that the Organic Food industry was in part the offspring of the environmental movement arising from Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring. We were careless with overuse of pesticides and fertiliser in the 20th century and much of the backlash has been an attempt to nurture the world rather than exploit it.

    However, as often happens, there have been attempts to claim benefits which do not bear scrutiny. It would appear that health is one of them. We shouldn’t let these (apparently) bogus claims obscure the good. A friend of mine has an organic smallholding. The eggs from her free range, organically reared chickens are spectacularly better than anything I can find in any supermarket. In this single, anecdotal case, organic food is a lot more enjoyable to eat.

    There may also be the case that organic farming is better for the countryside. I suspect it is better for ecological diversity, although I freely admit that this doesn’t stop me from putting fertiliser on my lawn twice a year.

  42. mikey2gorgeous said,

    August 3, 2009 at 10:41 am

    @benko – there’s an absence of evidence that standing over you pissing on your face prolongs your life – wanna try it?

    If the effect on health of organic food is statistically significant, why does the SA spend so much money on lobbying & not on independant research?

  43. Wyatt Earp said,

    August 3, 2009 at 11:46 am

    But Staph mate: if someone says “Organic food isn’t better for you”, why is it a bad argument to say “Well, I never thought it was and that’s not why I buy it”?

    I mean, Ben ends his article with a pretty strong claim to the effect that buying organic is the wrong way to counter the evils of agribusiness. He may well be right. However, that claim isn’t licensed by the finding that organic food is nutritionally similar to normal food.

    Meaning that Ben has himself moved the conversation beyond that finding. Meaning that other issues are fair game. Surely.

  44. BikerMondo said,

    August 3, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    @mikey2gorgeous – what is independant research? Or do you mean independent research?

    Your proposal for finding an elixir from urine whilst fascinating to you would be better discussed in a forum for followers of alchemy, homeopathy etc. where such outlandish proposals would be more readily welcomed.

  45. mrboo said,

    August 3, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    At best, this review should be saying “at this stage we don’t know that much about the effect of organic food on human physiology and more research is needed”. First, ‘health benefit’ was not defined. Is it lowered Systolic blood pressure? Increased HDL? Decreased fat mass? Increased quality of life? Increased duration of life? There are lots of ways of defining it but none was attempted. Measurement of biomarkers such as antioxidants are not direct measures, as was stated in the review. In the end only three studies matched the gold standard…hardly a ‘body of evidence’ from which a conclusion can be drawn. Small sample sizes were also used, again limiting the power of the statistics and increasing the chance of a type 2 error (false negative). Concluding from this review that there is no evidence for health benefit is overstating the case for the prosecution…there is just not enough good evidence to say either way.

  46. Groinhammer said,

    August 3, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Colmcq – Perhaps ‘Ness Lake’ should be considered as fair use in the English language.

  47. SteveGJ said,

    August 3, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    @belkin

    Well I don’t see any contradiction between what they say and what I am saying. The following line is the key one

    “When we are told that “there is no evidence that A causes B” we should first ask whether absence of evidence means simply that there is no information at all. If there are data we should look for quantification of the association rather than just a P value.”

    In other words, if we look at a study we have to first ask if when the study shows no evidence of “A causing B” then that simply happened because the test was either not sensitive enough or well enough constructed to show a statistically significant result. In that case there is no evidence either way, but in this case there manifestly is evidence of a negative insofar as if there were significant differences in nutrient content, the well constructed tests of those surveys should have shown them.

    My problem is with the unqualified use of the phrase which leads people to treat “an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” as identical to “an absence of evidence in favour of is not evidence of absence”. I see this used on everything from the existence of UFOs through conspiracy theorists, alternative medicine and religious articles of faith (not that I really think there is much difference between these). For many of a religous bent, the absence of evidence for a god is not evidence of the absence of god. Of course one can easily construct a theory for deity that can’t be discovered by empirical means – indeed that is written into the theological theory of many religions. But, I’m an empiricist, and for me it is evidence; just not proof.

    But back to the main subject. What this study did not show was anything about the relative nutrient content of the organically labelled food that you actually find in a supermarket compared to the conventionally grown stuff. What the study looked at was if the same crops were grown under similar circumstances (soil, variety and so on) if there was any significant difference in nutrient content. Of course it’s quite likely that there will be such differences in the shops – organically fed Guernsey cows will produce a very different product to barn-raised Holsteins. Now that could well have nothing at all to do whether the Guernsey’s are fed organically or not, but it could certainly be related to the philosophy of the farmers and marketers. Of course that points up another issue – just because it is organically fed, and even where there is a nutrient difference, there is no guarantee that the organic versionis better for you (in this case the Guernsey milk will be higher in fat).

    For the “I eat naturally farmed produce” as that was what we evolved with, I have bad news for you. For the vast majority of our evolutionary history, we didn’t grow up with agriculture at all. As far as we can tell, it’s history dates back a bit more than 10,000 years, as compared to the 200,000 years that homo sapien has been around, not to mention our species predecessors. The crops and animals we eat bear, for the most part, only a passing relationship to the wild versions. Better get out there and stalk a gazelle or start collecting the wild berries.

  48. GidAbove said,

    August 3, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    If I like Goldacre for one reason over all others it’s because he gets me thinking, and sometimes he even gets me reading large pieces of research at source instead of just relying on a press release or newspaper article. Then, if he’s really done his job well I come back to the original article and have another good think, in this case about the issue of “cherrypicking” from research to support a particular view or conclusion.

    So… Goldacre says in is opening sentence:
    “This week the Food Standards Agency published 2 review papers showing that organic food is no better than normal food, in terms of composition, or health benefits.”

    Bang. No question or doubt. Conclusive. It has been “shown” (defined as “to indicate (a fact) to be true; to demonstrate…”). Job done.

    Except, that when you actually look at what the studies conclude (as opposed to what the FSA might have said in their press release which is what actually sparked all the media fuss, the Soil Association’s counter-press release and Ben’s article etc) that’s only part of what they conclude and they only sort of conclude that.

    What they actually conclude is that the evidence of difference is not there. Maybe that’s what Goldacre means but that’s not quite what he says. Then they also conclude a bunch of other things that were clearly not the right kind of cherries for this particular pie including that it is biologically plausible for there to be significant differences and, most interestingly, that their all conclusions are only of limited value due to the considerable difficulty in comparing studies in this area and that:

    “Examination of this scattered evidence indicates a need for further high-quality research in this field.”

    Like I said, I like Goldacre’s stuff and I like this article because it exposes the Soil Association’s weak response for what it is. But, opening the article with a sentence making the research sound like the book is closed on nutrition and organic when in fact in the first study they conclude nothing of the sort (and in fact almost the exact opposite in their final sentence quoted above) doesn’t look so great. Not his best work.

    Note that the above mainly refers to the first LSHTM study. The main conclusion from the second one was that almost all studies on nutritional benefits are crap and that the need for proper studies (with the appropriate proper funding) was considerable. As the FSA love these two reviews so much I look forward to hearing of their lobbying within government for just such extensive cross-disciplinary funding. As they are run by people who are the completely impartial I can only imagine that was an oversight on their part (and also on the part of those so quick to use these reviews as an opportunity to jump on the organic movement) that they forgot to demand it already.

  49. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 3, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    hi there, sorry, dead laptop, barely been around. i should say i regard the opening sentence as a fail, and should definitely have said “found no evidence of benefit”. that change aside, i believe the rest of the piece stands absolutely. either there is good evidence of improved nutrition and health benefit from organic food, or there is not, and if not, you shouldn’t claim that there is. furthermore the extent of the soil association’s cherry picking, dissembling over what a “systematic review” is, and their efforts to wave sheaves of imaginary papers, appalls.

    re the penultimate paragraph, it seems very clear to me that there are important discussions to be had about the quality of regulations of food production. however the organic movement have made a consumer brand out of the notion that no such regulations are possible and all must buy into their extreme (and yet often inconsistent) position. not only do i not buy it, i think they are a distraction that prevents people having meaningful discussions about the regulatory frameworks and eg safety testing for industrial farming methods which will always produce the majority of our food.

    lastly, and i’m sorry there wasn’t room for this in the original column, any assertion from the Soil Association that they never made claims about the health benefits from organic food would simply be dishonest, no two ways about it, eg:

    92.52.112.178/web/sa/saweb.nsf/Living/nutrition.html

    in this regard they are treating journalists and the public like idiots, and since nobody has picked them up on it, they are doing so with good reason.

  50. copelch said,

    August 3, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    @msjhaffey:

    You write:
    The eggs from her free range, organically reared chickens are spectacularly better than anything I can find in any supermarket. In this single, anecdotal case, organic food is a lot more enjoyable to eat.

    This may indeed be the case, but have you carried out a double-blind test?

    Make two omelettes, one with organic eggs, the other with ‘synthetic’ ones. Put them on two plates, one marked on the bottom with ‘O’ and the other with ‘S’. Shuffle plates so that you don’t know which is ‘O’ and which is ‘S’. Then eat a morsel from each plate, rate as yummee and non-yummee. Then look under the plate and check it out….

  51. irishaxeman said,

    August 4, 2009 at 12:29 am

    Just distinguish between the so-called organic movement (a business) and the local production and consumption of naturally produced food. The local stuff generally tastes better, costs less, has no air-miles and supports local producers. The only place where this is otherwise an issue is London (where many journos and suchlike live artificial lives) or when some of these get out into the real world and have a Sunday supplement epiphany.

    I also suggest that as far as intensive farming is concerned, the principle is ‘put crap in, get crap out’. That is not the same thing at all as a marginal organic/non organic argument.

  52. adrian said,

    August 4, 2009 at 9:58 am

    GidAbove is right: the FSA website claims that there are “no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food”.

    However the research on which this claim is based does support this statement. Its conclusions say that there is “no evidence of health benefits from consuming organic compared to conventionally produced foods” and that “no evidence was detected” of differences between organic and conventional foods in respect of the majority of nutrients . It also laments the absence of high quality studies on these subjects.

    It is a shame, then, that the FSA claims it does not have an axe to grind, being “neither pro nor anti organic food”. If that were the case, wouldn’t the proper headline be something like “we just don’t know whether organic food makes any difference – and we would like to find out”?

    Could it be that the FSA has been leant on by…someone?

  53. JimCooper said,

    August 4, 2009 at 11:33 am

    I generally like your work, Ben, but I’m going to call you on this one. Like the entire rest of the media, you’re claiming things that the study doesn’t say.

    The study quite clearly states that it has a narrow focus:

    “The focus of the review was the nutritional content of foodstuffs”

    From there, all the media, including you, sadly, trumpet that organic food has no health benefits.

    Now, I fully agree that the Soil Association have always been on a hiding to nothing with their claims of better nutrition (and taste, too, I seem to recall). Their responses to the research have been as you say, largely based on faith rather than evidence.

    But jumping from “no nutritional difference” to “no health benefit” is just plain dishonest. Especially as the report makes clear it does not claim any such thing.

    I had expected better.

  54. Dead Badger said,

    August 4, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Totally agreed, Ben. I was more irked with the FSA for overstating the research’s findings than anything, seeing as how it gives the Soil Association a (semi-)genuine reason to bash the review. It absolutely doesn’t excuse the SA’s own misrepresentations, which are both more egregious and more varied. It really is depressing to see how much the beta-carotene figure is being bandied around, as if it had been proven that organics contain more.

    I agree also with the last two paras; by making environmental ethics marketable, what you’re really selling is not environmental policy, but peace of mind. Once the consumer gets the warm fuzzies from buying what they perceive as “organic” (however that’s defined), it becomes a race to the bottom: who can provide this label for the least cost? Undoubtedly a lot of organic producers are indeed conscientious types who put genuine effort into their certification, and genuine thought into their environmental impact. Many more, however, will simply be trying to churn out the most produce with that green “O” on it, collecting the increased margins with the least possible effort.

    Evidenced-based policy really shouldn’t have a cycle of marketing and consumer consciousness inserted in the loop. This is a system that induces us to spend tens of billions of dollars a year on tap water; do we really want to leave custody of the environment to a body that is just as much a marketing entity as Coca-Cola?

    “Irrigate your crops with cool, refreshing Dasani – it’s Nature’s choice!”

  55. minime said,

    August 4, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    @benko

    Thank you Benko, you have helped to solve a problem that I have been restling with some time now.

    I have a theory about how the force of gravity is implimented: When I let go of an object, let’s say it’s a tennis ball, my theory is that an invisible green monster grabs it from my hand and drags it to the floor.

    Although my theory fits all the observational data, my problem is that I can’t find any evidence to support it. And although I beleive it most sincerely, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that I might have to concede that my theory is fanciful based on the lack of evidence.

    Your assertion, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, is of course a great help. I shall ignore my inner doubts that my position for what is no more (currently) than a leap of faith is possibly floored. I can now confidently assert that my theory is worthy of deeper consideration by the scientific community and I shall pursue my theory with renewed viggor.

    Thanks you again.

  56. Dead Badger said,

    August 4, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Could someone (minime, for example) point out to me where benko said “…and in the absence of evidence, we should all believe whatever bollocks we want”? Because I think I must have missed that bit.

  57. jonnie falafel said,

    August 4, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    @staphyolcoccus#39… I appreciate Bens point I was only arguing that to keep the argument on these narrow nutritionist grounds is to perpertuate a misunderstanding about the benefits of organic food… as I wrote I don’t care about minor differences or similarities in nutritional content…. and that it doesn’t follow from this report that organics are bunkum. It even irritates me when Rennee What’shername (founder of Organic Planet) gets a spot on the news and simply insists that Organic is better nutritionally as if that was all there was to recommend these production methods.

    A digression – I’ve never found organic box schemes to be pricey and wondered if anyone had actually done the comparison. There’s a supplier in the North (won’t say which one as I’m not here to push anything) that does a comparison on their website and that suggests it’s actually cheaper.

  58. MedsVsTherapy said,

    August 4, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Here would be my reason for buying organic, if I were to bother: from WWII, the chemical industry became a great deal more advanced, and so did money-lending, here in the U.S. The chemical companies figured out two ways to sell more chemicals: fertilizers and pesticides. These were increasingly marketed to farmers, who did realize greater yields. The outcomes from pesticides are debatable, but the fertilizer results were bounteous. As humans are wont, farmers devoted time and space to the more bounteous, profitable crops. They became very good at this. Because of increased yields, they moved toward mono-culture. Monoculture favors bugs, so they needed the pesticides, too. At the same time, they decreased the style of farming varied crops, which is called “putting all of your eggs in one basket.” They also began to borrow money for things such as seed, fertilizer, pesticide, and equipment (tractors, etc.) because this was a time of monoculture bounty. You need a wider tractor, and bigger silo, to harvest a bigger crop. No problem: borrow. The chemical company reps (is this beginning to sound familiar?) heavily promoted fertilizer, and pesticides. On shaky evidence. Yields were good. So good in fact that the cost of grown/harveted food (fruits, veg, pulse) in our U.S. diet fell drastically. However, as nature is wont, weather, bugs, sun, etc. introduced something called “variability,” the enemy of borrowing-against-anticipated-yields. Farmers went broke by the scores in the 1970s. This was too much for even Willie Nelson or Neil Young to rescue. They did not go broke because they were no longer able to grow things. They went broke because they borrowed against expected future yields. Farmers have known for all civilized time that nature involves variability (this wisdm reflected in Ecclesiastes and Solomon’s Proverbs is probably quite late documentation of this common knowledge). Farmers from 1950s to 1970s believed that chemicals, as touted by the chemical companies, could defy age-old wisdom. There is a word for farmers who believe they can defy age-old wisdom. It is called “unemployed.” I have heard it said, although I have no evidence, that before pesticides, farmers lost 1/3 of crops to pests, and after pesticides, farmers lost…1/3 of crops to pesticides. That would be my motivation to avoid pesticide-laden foods: these are the same chemical companies that have convinced 10% of us here in the U.S. that things are so bad that we need to be on psych meds.

  59. MedsVsTherapy said,

    August 4, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Doughboy: this was funny!
    “call me naive but isn’t the mortality rates in both free range and intensive methods of poultry production running at around the 100% mark.”

    For a school project we raised a couple dozen chickens. Getting to 10% mortality was easy; 90% a little challenging; the final percentile required the help of a friendly (sadistic? merciful?) volunteer since we singled one poor, sick, limping, sleepy cluck out of the flock to avoid “processing.” So, my personal observation supports your “naive” view that chicken-qua-food mortality approaches 100%.

  60. minime said,

    August 4, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Well, to be fair Dead Badger, I haven’t had the resources to look for my invisible green monster or to trawl the scientific literature, studies and papers to see if anybody else has. Yet when faced with a well researched study which fails to find any evidence, The Soil Association, which can lay its hands on ample resources should it wish to, chooses to find questionable ways of dismissing it. Although I still hope and beleive that I will find my invisible green monster one day, I’m not so sure which one of us is taking the most ludicrous position.

  61. Dead Badger said,

    August 4, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Again, benko made no reference to what one should assume in the absence of evidence. He merely noted that if you claim something has been disproven, it’s traditional to actually have evidence disproving it first. Given the study’s numerous caveats regarding the quality of available evidence and the massive error bars on several of the results, this seems a perfectly reasonable point to make.

    If you’re objecting to the Soil Association’s dissembling stance, fine. They are indeed highly annoying. But you didn’t reply to the SA; you replied to someone who was saying something quite different, with a post that was almost completely irrelevant to what they actually said.

  62. lasker said,

    August 5, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Organic food tastes better.
    (To me, yes. But even a double blind study showing no taste benefit would have no relevence – To me!)
    So it is more nourishing – to my psyche.
    (Well that’s that one sorted.)

    Likewise there are many other subjective reasons why people might prefer organic food. Eg: Better living conditions for livestock, a more aesthetically pleasing countryside with hedgerows, benefit to wildlife from land left fallow, a yearning to protect traditional ways of life.

    The soil association was formed by people who feel passionately about the benefits of organic food. Surely it is perfectly valid for them to use “Bad Science” to defend what has been attacked by “Good science”.

    “Good science” in this case garners spurious authority from its scientific rigor when in fact its insights are qualified and only partially relevent.

  63. Clam77 said,

    August 5, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Ah, I think I just fell in love. Finally Ben a reasoned argument about the actual matter in hand, the robustness of the evidence base, without the emotional ranting on the subject matter. Although I notices you couldn’t resist a last dig at the homeopaths, shame on you.

  64. mb said,

    August 5, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    The question of pesticides and their effect on health is a serious one. The problem with the evidence is that what we need are long term studies, and in addition we need studies that do not focus on a single product but look also at interactions. These are difficult studies at the best of time, but who is going to fund them, especially when vested interests are threatened? In the meantime people will have to make their own judgement. Not so long ago there was no clear evidence that smoking was bad for you, and tobacco industries fought hard to keep things that way, so people had to make their own judgement. If they decided that they did not want to smoke or to spend time with smokers, they probably were mocked as being “posh”.

    Also, the “cui bono” question is always a very important one, so when Ben mentions “the £2bn industry represented by the Soil Association” it is worth saying that even so they are still minnows in the big agro industry landscape.

  65. Litesp33d said,

    August 6, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    I am educated with a science bias and think homeopathy and anthropomorphic global warming is bollox. So much for some background. I also read a lot and try to filter information to see what lies behind the headlines. However that does not mean that I think everything that touches this area is also bollox.

    Always follow the money. I do not know how much money the UK spends on food every year compared with the £2 billion that the organic market is said to be worth. I do know that according to Chartered Institute of Environmental Health UK consumers throw away over £10 billion worth of perfectly edible food every year.

    So it follows that the organic food industry at £2 billion per year, of mainly small producers, is less likely to have influence with the FSA than say a certain burger company that UK consumers spent £10 billion with in 2006. That is one company. £10 billion. I also recognise that some in the organic food industry are full blown knit your own yoghurt members. But not all.

    The point I’m getting at is that suppose it had been found inconclusively that organic food was better. What chance would there be that the information would get out?

    This report is that the FSA can find ‘no evidence’ that organic food is better. But I have heard reports like this for years. No evidence that vitamin C is beneficial to humans until they find it. Bees are too heavy to fly until slow motion photography shows they fly like a helicopter rather than fixed wing. No evidence that omega fatty acids are good for you until they find it. What do you mean there is more omegas in organic milk and eggs. Hmm! We better prove omegas are unhealthy then.

    Funnily enough something beneficial usually gets discovered about the time that some multi-national food / drug / supply company has a process in place to make it. It takes about 17 years for fringe ideas to become adopted by mainstream. Naturally of course some fringe ideas are total bollox. Bits of coloured glass as crystal therapy spring to mind. However some mainstream ideas are total bollox also like Religion and global warming.

    So you do your own research (and you better do because people with a vested interest do not have YOUR interests at heart) and pays your money and makes your choice.

    What the FSA report, by implication, is suggesting is that if they can find ‘no evidence’ that organic is better, it does not matter if you eat any old shit because it is all the same. Now because the organic food business is tiny compared to other food business, will this ‘revelation’ be more of a benefit to ‘big processed food’ and ‘big fast food’ or organic?

    In the meantime the UK population is killing itself with obesity. So if it does not matter what you eat why is this happening? You can’t see what you don’t want to see. It would cost too many vested interests too much. After all even after multiple law suits to the contrary the tobacco industry will still try to claim there is no conclusive evidence of a link between smoking and cancer. And the new consumers of tobacco, people in the third world, are not likely to live long enough to complain.

    So what do I think I know.

    Farmland no longer sits fallow. In order to get high food production massive amounts of synthetically produced fertiliser (The Aggro (sic) chemical industry benefits from this) are used producing food with lower amounts of vitamins and minerals than some 50 years ago.

    Farmers

    Farmers have a 70% greater risk of developing prostate cancer than non-farmers.

    Compared with older men in the general population, older farmers were found to have a higher rate of skin cancer, high blood pressure, arthritis, and hearing problems.

    Now which part of the population handles a higher proportion of organophosphates as fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides in their day-to-day life?

    I’ve seen what modern farming does to the land and how what is produced is processed close at hand. I married a farmer’s daughter. If it makes no difference how the food is produced or what chemicals are used on the land or what drugs are pumped into animals why do we set limits about what is safe for humans to ingest?

    Are we living longer? Well that is a debatable question. Visit any cemetery and you will see people lived long lives 100 and 200 years ago. Infant mortality was massive though, which meant the average life span was shorter. A child dies at 6 months and an adult lives to 90. Average life span 45 years. So because we are improving infant mortality the average life span is increasing and because of this the overall population is bigger and so more people are reaching 100. But not as a percentage of the population. In Africa average life span is declining. Not because of AIDS (although that is not helping) but still because of infant mortality.

    So you do your own research (and you better do because people with a vested interest do not have YOUR interests at heart) and pays your money and makes your choice.

    I’ve done my research. I believe organic food tastes better, I believe organic has more nutrients; I believe organic seems expensive because we don’t yet realise the true cost of mass production. I believe the newspaper headlines do not reflect what the FSA have actually said. I think some organic info is bollox. But not all.

    You believe what you think. It’s your life and your body.

  66. lasker said,

    August 7, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    New study. So what?
    Rigorous maybe. So what?
    Unscientific response by the soil association.
    Well really, what do you expect?
    Many people defending organic produce do so on the simple basis that it tastes better.
    They want to enjoy their food. End of.
    Why the fuck should they care about some new study?

  67. Caledonian1976 said,

    August 11, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    So many people using the argument along the lines of Dead Badger’s at 61.

    “He merely noted that if you claim something has been disproven, it’s traditional to actually have evidence disproving it first.”

    The Soil Association has stated (for a long time) that organic food is healthier and more nutritious. Shouldn’t they have evidence to prove that?

    Studies have been done to try to prove their assertion. Many people eat organic food. Surely it wouldn’t be that hard to find conclusive evidence, and if the evidence is so small that it can’t be found, it’s not even worth bothering about (and perhaps doesn’t even exist).

    The whole disproving argument is the fallback of those with no other argument. It’s the ‘faith’ argument. It’s the Celestial Teapot argument.

    And as for the “it tastes better” difference – do the Pepsi Challenge. Most people have such rubbish tastes that they couldn’t tell the difference if challenged, and base their ‘taste buds’ on knowledge.

  68. Dead Badger said,

    August 14, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    The Soil Association has stated (for a long time) that organic food is healthier and more nutritious. Shouldn’t they have evidence to prove that?

    Absolutely they should. I didn’t say otherwise.

    The whole disproving argument is the fallback of those with no other argument. It’s the ‘faith’ argument. It’s the Celestial Teapot argument.

    I’m not arguing in favour of organics. I don’t buy them and think they’re a waste of money. I just think research should be described properly. Bonkers, innit?

  69. Dead Badger said,

    August 15, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Weird – my above comment only appears when I’m logged in. Testing, testing, one two one two.

  70. loening said,

    August 20, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    “No difference” may be the answer, but what was the question? I would have put it the other way before starting the review: Is it possible that ‘conventionally’ produced food is as good as organic? Then the answer comes out as ,Yes, even if suprisingly. But even that is not sound science. Since we do not know why fruit and veg are good for you, only that they are (from long experience?), it makes no sense to measure just a few known nutrient contents. You can conclude , as the FSA did, that they are no different in the chosen nutrients, but whether the health-promoting product are similar remains an open question. The onus is on the conventional to show that we can get away with it. (What are the “diseases of civilisation”?)
    I would like to see some proper repeats of Sir Albert Howard’s experiments with oxen in India between the wars, and I’d like to see this done on soils that have been organically husbanded for at least 5, maybe 10 years, before they can be called truly organic. This is because soluble added nutrients/fertilisers inhibit mycorrhiza and probably some other soil micro-organisms which create the conditions for healthy crops, leading to healthy animals and presumably healthy humans. There are good and documented biochemical reasons for this and it take time to re-develop the soil eco-systems. There was a lost opportunity to get some statistics during the foot and mouth epidemic; to see whether long-term organic farms suffered less. Meanwhile, I grow and eat organically; perhaps I’m reasonably healthy only because I don’t eat ‘junk food!’ We do have some pests in the garden, mainly mice and jackdaws – they like the food too!

  71. loening said,

    August 21, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Also weird – I have the same problem as Dead Badger, my comment appears only when I’m logged in. So you won’t be able to read my wisdom either!
    What’s wrong?

  72. loening said,

    August 21, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    Something was wrong in transmission: I’ve copied my comments and am submitting again.
    “No difference” may be the answer, but what was the question? I would have put it the other way before starting the review: Is it possible that ‘conventionally’ produced food is as good as organic? Then the answer comes out as ,Yes, even if suprisingly. But even that is not sound science. Since we do not know why fruit and veg are good for you, only that they are (from long experience?), it makes no sense to measure just a few known nutrient contents. You can conclude , as the FSA did, that they are no different in the chosen nutrients, but whether the health-promoting product are similar remains an open question. The onus is on the conventional to show that we can get away with it. (What are the “diseases of civilisation”?)
    I would like to see some proper repeats of Sir Albert Howard’s experiments with oxen in India between the wars, and I’d like to see this done on soils that have been organically husbanded for at least 5, maybe 10 years, before they can be called truly organic. This is because soluble added nutrients/fertilisers inhibit mycorrhiza and probably some other soil micro-organisms which create the conditions for healthy crops, leading to healthy animals and presumably healthy humans. There are good and documented biochemical reasons for this and it take time to re-develop the soil eco-systems. There was a lost opportunity to get some statistics during the foot and mouth epidemic; to see whether long-term organic farms suffered less. Meanwhile, I grow and eat organically; perhaps I’m reasonably healthy only because I don’t eat ‘junk food!’ We do have some pests in the garden, mainly mice and jackdaws – they like the food too!

  73. loening said,

    August 21, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Curioser and weirder – my re-try only appears when logged in, whereas these little weird comments including Dead Badger’s, appear without log in . See what this one does.

  74. loening said,

    August 21, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    Still trying – maybe both opur comments were too long. Here is the first half of mine:
    Something was wrong in transmission: I’ve copied my comments and am submitting again.
    “No difference” may be the answer, but what was the question? I would have put it the other way before starting the review: Is it possible that ‘conventionally’ produced food is as good as organic? Then the answer comes out as ,Yes, even if suprisingly. But even that is not sound science. Since we do not know why fruit and veg are good for you, only that they are (from long experience?), it makes no sense to measure just a few known nutrient contents. You can conclude , as the FSA did, that they are no different in the chosen nutrients, but whether the health-promoting product are similar remains an open question. The onus is on the conventional to show that we can get away with it. (What are the “diseases of civilisation”?)

  75. person22 said,

    September 2, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Fair enough they shouldn’t be making claims about health benefit if there aren’t any; but it is relevant that “the important issue with organic food is not personal health benefits, but rather benefit to the environment” and also the health of the workers. The problem here is that a moral issue is getting confused with an issue of personal health and the soil association isn’t helping by continuing to argue on the wrong grounds- I certainly never heard anyone arguing that organic is healthier on the grounds of there being stuff in organic that isn’t in non-organic food-rather that all the pestecides herbecides etc. aren’t good for our health- which, stupidly, isn’t adreesed in these reviews.The soil association isn’t great but neither are chemicals in our food, the environment, or workers bodies. The moral imperative has always been greater than the health side.

  76. nickuk72 said,

    September 8, 2009 at 8:00 am

    SteveGJ – The Phonetic pronunciation of Loch is not Lock. Talk about making a bad situation worse. Surely this forum is about dispelling ignorance?

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  78. Jack McStewart said,

    February 5, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Ben Goldacre, this is a poor and unhelpful article. You say:

    ‘Secondly, they say that the health benefits of organic food are related to pesticides, are positive, and cannot be measured by the evidence that has been identified and summarised in the FSA paper. This, again, is gamesmanship.’

    But the FSA article clearly states in the Executive Summary: ‘This review does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.’

    Furthermore, you simply can’t separate the issues of organic food for human health and for the health of the environment. Human health is inextricably linked to the health of the environment. Your article is a symbolic case study for how reductive thinking is not always the most logical.

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