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UK government dismisses organics

Organic food may be no better for you than mass-produced farm food, according to the British cabinet minister responsible for the food industry. David Miliband, the environment secretary, says organic produce, which is usually more expensive, is a “lifestyle choice� with no hard evidence that it is healthier. His comments will be a blow to the UK organic food industry, which is pressing for UK government recognition of what it describes as the nutritional and environmental benefits of its produce. Sales of organic food jumped by 30% last year, with the industry now worth £1.6 billion. A growing number of shoppers believe that it tastes better and is safer.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Miliband said: “It’s only 4% of total farm produce, not 40%, and I would not want to say that 96% of our farm produce is inferior because it’s not organic.� He insisted that ordinary food should not be thought of as “second best�, although he described the rise of organics as “exciting�.

On nutritional benefits, the minister said: “It’s a lifestyle choice that people can make. There isn’t any conclusive evidence either way.� About 350 pesticides are allowed in conventional farming, with an estimated 4.5 billion litres of chemicals poured onto British crops every year. Campaigners say the average mass-produced apple has 20 to 30 chemicals on its skin.

The Soil Association, which regulates organic food, argues that meat, vegetables and dairy produced without pesticides are likely to be healthier, with some additives used in conventional farming linked to asthma and heart disease. Organic meat also has welfare benefits, guaranteeing that animals are kept in free-range conditions and fed natural diets.

However, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has refused to accept these arguments. Sir John Krebs, a former chairman of the FSA, angered organic lobbyists when he said that there was no evidence that organic food was more nutritious or safer than conventionally produced food, despite its cost.

Organic produce is up to 63% more expensive than conventional food, according to recent research by Morgan Stanley, the investment bank. The Soil Association says this is because it takes longer to produce and is more labour intensive.

Patrick Holden, Soil Association Director, was invited to give his view on David Miliband’s comments on BBC Radio 4′s ‘Farming Today’ program. He said, “To be fair to the man, the Food Standards Agency do not consider there to be a sufficient body of evidence in front of them to make a definitive judgement. However there’s a whole raft of indicative evidence including there are increased levels of dry matter, vitamins, trace elements and minerals and secondary metabolites in organic food. And I think that sitting on the fence really isn’t good enough given that 75 per cent of the public are now exercising, on a regular basis, their buying power to support organic farming in the market place. To dismiss organic as a ‘lifestyle choice’ is patronising and slightly insulting to members of the public who have made a sophisticated choice to buy organic food…â€?

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