The story on the website of newspaper The Daily Telegraph, for instance, headlined as ‘Organic food less tasty than normal’, was in fact about a small-scale study comparing only potatoes, broccoli and tomatoes grown as garden crops. Of those three crops, only the non-organic tomatoes were judged by a panel to have more flavour.
The report in Consumer Association (CA) magazine ‘Which? Gardening’ was based on a study of produce from a single site in southern England. But editor Ceri Thomas defended the study’s scale. “I certainly wouldn’t discount our results,” she said. “It was a proper scientific study carried out over two years.”
She added: “We want people to have the evidence, and to avoid bland statements about organic food tasting better. We’ve not done this to be negative, and there are all sorts of other reasons for eating – and growing – organic foods.”
On the nutrition side, the study examined only “antioxidant capacity” in the broccoli and vitamin C levels in the potatoes, both of which favoured the non-organic produce in each case.
Despite all this, the CA’s own press release began by suggesting there were “little, if any, nutritional or taste benefits to growing organically”.
The Soil Association, however, has called the CA research “an unscientific study of an extremely limited sample of vegetables”. In a statement, head of policy Emma Hockridge said: “More conclusive research needs to be done comparing organic and non-organic foods in terms of nutrient content. But there is a growing body of research that shows organic food can be more nutritious.”
Organics appear to be a fashionable target, not only for parts of the UK media, but for politicians, too. Earlier this month, Food Navigator reported on the Soil Association’s ‘Lazy Man of Europe’ document, which contrasted the diffident stance of the UK government with the far more positive support provided by other EU Member States with regard to organics.
The image of organic food as an indulgent luxury seems to be particularly widespread in the UK. Soil Association spokeswoman Clio Turton speculated: “Perhaps it’s more of a class issue than in other countries.”
The Soil Association is also critical of the 2009 meta-analysis carried out by the Food Standards Agency, which concluded there was no proof of health benefits from eating organic food.
This atmosphere of scepticism is reinforced by pressure from other vested interests, the Soil Association argues. “There’s definitely a drip feed from intensive farming and the GM companies working to normalise certain things,” Turton added.
The Soil Association quotes figures from Kantar which show, unlike other countries, UK sales of organic products falling by nearly 13% during 2009. During 2010, sales saw a more modest year-on-year drop, though there were signs of a flattening out by the end of the year.