Incredible organic? More studies needed to substantiate health effects

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

“Organic farming should receive more attention in the public debate as it provides investment in public health,” said Bulgarian MEP Momchil Nekov,
“Organic farming should receive more attention in the public debate as it provides investment in public health,” said Bulgarian MEP Momchil Nekov,

Related tags: Agriculture, Organic farming, Sustainable agriculture

More research is needed to establish the health and nutritional credentials of organic foods, say agricultural MEPs.

This was the outcome of last Tuesday’s debate, hosted by the European Parliament’s science and technology unit, STOA, during which MEPs, academics and representatives from NGOs discussed the benefits of organic food.

The purpose of the event was to give policy makers access to the latest scientific knowledge on the impact organic foods have on human health, and to discuss whether there is enough information on which to base policy decisions.

The general consensus was that more research was needed to assess the concrete nutrition benefits of organic foods.

“There is a lack of evidence of organic crops having more significant nutritional value than conventional ones,” ​Bernhard Watzl, from the Max Rubner-Institut in Germany, told delegates.

No long-term data

He said that few human intervention studies had been carried out, that there had been no long-term studies looking at the health outcomes of populations consuming predominantly organic versus conventionally-produced food, whilst controlling for socio-economic factors, and that human intervention studies on organic foods do not investigate health outcomes.

Ewa Rembialkowska, from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, made a case for organic food being potentially more beneficial for animal and human health than conventional food. In support, she referred to the “significant differences​ in the hormone and immune systems of organic and non-organic fed animals. She reported that studies with animals fed organically showed better fertility levels, lower mortality rates at birth and better immunity response.

“Further animal studies are necessary to understand better the functional relationships; future human studies are needed to verify the impact of the organic food on human health,” ​she said.

Bulgarian MEP Momchil Nekov, who chaired the meeting and has prioritised the promotion of organic farming and production during his term, said: “Organic farming should receive more attention in the public debate as it provides investment in public health.

Widely held view

And this view was not just confined to those stakeholders present at the workshop.  EU director  at the International Federation of Organic Movements (IFOAM), Marco Schlüter, told this publication: “Organic food and farming has not been prioritized by public research so far, and it is facing a deficit in terms of research funding in all areas.

He said it had already been already proven that organic outperforms and provides many gains for biodiversity, rural areas, water and soil management, reduction of pesticides and more nutritious food.

“More research and research funding is needed to better understand the benefits organic provides to people and planet, as well as for practices and techniques to help organic develop and perform even better,​he added.

Will words lead to action?

However, identifying a need for research and committing to it are two different matters, and Sara Ahnborg, a spokesperson for the European Parliament, told FoodNavigator. “The debate will feed into general discussions on organic farming, farm subsidies and research, but will not in itself have any concrete consequences. The meeting cannot be seen as a decision to fund more research into organic production or foods.

She pointed out that the general frameworks for the EU's research programme, Horizon 2020, and agriculture policy, had been agreed for a seven-year timeframe. The current research term runs from 2014-2020 and was agreed in 2013. In a few years, she said preparations would start for the next term.

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