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Publication:

Organic Agriculture and Food Utilization (2007)

Author(s): Brandt K

    Abstract: SUMMARY OF FINDINGS 89. The following summarizes the various issues discussed in this paper regarding benefits of organically produced food in terms of the food utilization and in comparison to conventionally produced food. 90. Food safety: Many aspects of organic agriculture reduce the risks of pathogens (zoonoses), mycotoxins, bacterial toxins and industrial toxic pollutants, compared to conventional agriculture. However, some other aspects potentially increase them. Reduced resistance to antibiotics in zoonotic pathogens indicates a better prognosis for patients if an infection does occur. For natural plant toxins, the content in plants appears to systematically be 10 to 50 percent higher than in conventional plants. However, this is in a range of concentrations where these compounds have no toxic effect and may even benefit human health. 91. Pesticide poisoning: This is an area where very substantial health problems have been documented, especially among farmers and their families. Pesticide poisoning causes some 20 000 deaths per year globally and an average of 11 days wages lost due to illness, per farmer per incidence, in some areas. Even symptom-free workers often exhibit biomarker changes indicating increased risk of diseases, including Parkinson’s disease. With the present level of knowledge, elimination of such horrible conditions, which can be achieved on a short timescale, is the quantitatively single most important benefit of organic farming in terms of human health. Still, long-term occupational exposure to copper also increases the risk of Parkinson’s disease, but not as much as exposure to synthetic pesticides. 92. Pesticide residues: The levels in organic products are consistently 4 to 5 times lower than in conventional products. However, no definitive causal connection with harm to consumers has ever been demonstrated for food produced in accordance with general (conventional) food safety rules. Errors and accidents can cause contamination with harmful levels of pesticides, but this risk is eliminated when no pesticides are present. Across the different safety risks in both systems, the best managers achieve much better standards than the average producers, and the occurrence of serious hazards is so low that no significant differences have been demonstrated between production systems. 93. Food quality: Consumers generally appreciate that food is authentic and trustworthy and produced with care for them and the environment. So reduced food additives and pesticide residues, good traceability and emphasis on animal welfare all support the perception of organic food as being of high-quality. Differences in taste between organic and conventional food products are strongly affected by interaction with local aspects and therefore show few general trends. Only poultry (broiler) produced according to the organic standards results in a clearly differentiated taste compared with mainstream conventional products. 94. Nutritional adequacy: In developing countries, organic agriculture has several advantages for the provision of nutrients, such as higher Zn/phytate ratio and better amino acid composition in cereals. Also, a more balanced diet due to the greater diversity of organic rotations, including legumes and various types of vegetables, and the need for animals on each farm provide important nutritional benefits. In developed countries, nutritional value is much more difficult to determine. However, the higher levels of plant secondary metabolites and conjugated fatty acids in milk may provide important protection against cardiovascular disease, cancer and other diseases known to be influenced by diet. 95. Human health: Epidemiological studies have shown better health scores among consumers of organic food for immunological characteristics and weight control, and similar benefits have been reproduced in animal studies, supporting a possible causal role of the food production system. 96. Post-harvest operations: Higher activity of plant defense mechanisms in organic plants reduces the losses during transport and storage. The preference for local products and short supply chains also reduce the loss of quality during transport. 97. Pollution of drinking water: Organic farmers have substantially higher economic incentives than conventional farmers to establish and maintain sufficient capacity for collection, composting and incorporation of animal and human wastes as valuable fertilizer. This is particularly important in areas where sanitation is not provided or standards not enforced by the authorities. Such measures will also substantially reduce contamination with nitrates and phosphorus. There is little evidence that these minerals have any harmful effects on humans, if the drinking water is free of pathogens, except by promoting blooms of toxic algae. 98. Pollution of the environment: Persistent pesticides (such as DDT) have damaged wildlife globally and are still being used in many developing countries. Organic agriculture protects the local environment against all types of pesticides and has potential to benefit the global situation if the proportion of land under organic management becomes large enough to reduce the total use. Pollution with nitrate and phosphorus are major causes of eutrophication. Organic farms leach lower levels of phosphorus into drainage water than conventional ones. For nitrate, the loss from organic farms tends to be slightly lower than conventional, except when comparing organic outdoor pig production with conventional indoor production. However, recent data indicate that organically managed soil may be more efficient at denitrification, releasing most of the nitrate into the atmosphere as harmless N2. If this is a general trend, the benefits of organic farming are much larger than previously estimated.

      • Date: 3-5 May 2007
      • Series Title: Synthesis papers on Organic Agriculture and Food Security
      • Pages: 2-30
      • Institution: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
      • Publication type: Report
      • Bibliographic status: Published
      Staff

      Dr Kirsten Brandt
      Senior Lecturer