The great boom experienced by organic food in recent years has awakened a wave of attacks launched from the food industry and propagated by the mainstream media.
It is difficult to specify the date on which everything began, but we are going to place it in September 2012. With Txetxu, a Basque cattle farmer now retired, we would leave early to visit the farm of Txato and Iñigo Larizgoitia, two brothers who in Zeberio had transformed a monoculture with a single client, Mercabilbao, in a diversified agriculture that allowed them to fill the weekly basket of more than a hundred families from nearby towns, without intermediaries. Someone called us (at that time there was no WhatsApp): "Buy today's newspaper, you will see what a surprise." On the cover ofThe countryThis headline appeared: "If you eat organic, don't think it's healthier."
Since then there have been contradictory reports in the media regarding organic food. Are they healthier, fairer? Do they prevent climate change?
To try to shed light on this, it is convenient to think in a systemic way and not only look at the final product, but at its production system. “Agroecological production proposes the sustainable design and management of agroecosystems with ecological criteria through forms of collective social action and contributes to responding to the current ecological and social crisis in rural and urban areas. Agroecology is, then, a scientific discipline, a set of techniques, but also a social movement ”, explains Mª Dolores Raigón, president of the Spanish Society of Ecological Agriculture (SEAE).
This, as we see, goes beyond the ecological seal, which focuses on compliance with a legislation that prohibits the use of chemical synthesis inputs. At least add two more ingredients: local consumption and seasonal consumption.
Caring for the earth feeds better
María Dolores Raigón is a professor of Agricultural Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Valencia and has been researching the differences between conventional and agro-ecological foods for 18 years. He says that to draw contrasted conclusions, comparisons must be made in similar conditions (soil, climate, varieties, races ...) and in this sense, there are many studies that show the highest concentration of nutrients in food obtained under agroecological production techniques, both vegetables and animals.
"All the results indicate that conventionally produced foods are losing nutritional value, while organic ones have more protein, vitamin and mineral content, a higher level of antioxidant substances and a high organoleptic value", explains Raigón. For example, organic citrus products have between 10% and 20% more vitamin C than conventional ones. In carrots, the difference in potassium level is 35% in addition to other data such as the presence of minerals and iron. And so in many other foods studied.
But ... why have conventional foods lost their nutritional value? Raigón explains that there are four fundamental factors: the loss of soil fertility and its impoverishment, the substitution of traditional varieties for hybrid or commercial varieties - improved to have more yield against other parameters such as nutritional value -, the loss of vitality due to the great distances that food usually travels and, finally, premature harvesting or ripening in the chamber. “If a tomato is harvested prematurely, it does not reach its full nutritional value, neither vitamins nor minerals. When we take a well-grown organic tomato it smells, you know… it has all the characteristics that a tomato should have ”.
Science confirms something that can be easily guessed from common sense. As Bertolt Bretch says, "what times will we live in, that we must defend the obvious".
A production system that takes care of the natural fertility of the earth, respects natural cycles and is based on the prevention of pests and diseases, among other practices, it seems clear that it will allow life to reproduce in better qualitative conditions.
And if we need a qualifier for this form of production, which is the one that has historically existed, it is because our imaginary about agricultural production is situated in a very different place: industrial agriculture. We consider "normal" intensive production, highly dependent on oil, subsidies, technologies and chemical inputs.
So, it seems irrefutable that the oranges, tomatoes or pumpkins that we have allowed to grow and ripen at their natural rate, without doping, are more nutritious, but also, as Marta Rivera, from the Vic Agroecology Chair says, “are also free from the damaging effects of some products that, euphemistically, we call phytosanitary products but whose true vocation is pest control; therefore, it is better to call them by their name, pesticides ”.
Raigón gives the example of glyphosate, one of the world's best-selling herbicides: "A widely documented threat to health, the environment and biodiversity," explains the scientist. "It accumulates in the soil, in the water and in the fatty tissue of our body, hence its capacity to disrupt the endocrine system, as many studies indicate," he adds. In 2015, the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer established that "glyphosate damages DNA, causes cancer in animals and is probably carcinogenic to humans."
The health controversy associated with meat is related to conventional livestock production systems and their degree of intensification. The health system of intensive livestock is based on the systematic use of antibiotics, antiparasitics or insecticides, which generate a large amount of permanent residues accumulated in meat and milk. “Medical research affirms that more than 90% of the toxins that we accumulate come from the fats of animal origin that we consume. Instead, organic farming bases its health and welfare system on holistic control and preventive medicine programs - a combination of food management and zootechnical practices - that guarantee the non-existence of chemical residues throughout the breeding cycle ”, affirms Carmelo García , of the National Veterinary Body of Toledo.
Being an organic tomato
Statistics, despite smear campaigns, show how organic consumption continues to increase, both globally and statewide. However, this diet carries a stigma that makes its growth not as fast as one might expect: its price. “The price is not set by the consumer or the producer, except in consumer groups where a fair price is reached. The point is not that organic food is expensive, it is that conventional food is excessively and artificially cheap, ”says Raigón. And is that industrial agriculture, as occurs in other consumer products, achieves low prices at the cost of economies of scale, labor exploitation, public subsidies and environmental pollution.
The same conclusion was reached at FAO after collecting many values related to the price of organic food. For every euro that is paid for a conventional food, another has to be paid to remedy the cost of environmental problems and another to meet health costs. The conventional product is then more expensive due to hidden costs. “Food and medicine are business. If we do not break the economic barriers and value the social, we will not change the dynamics, ”says Raigón.
In the current market system, with economic profit as the main priority, the market niche that these products represent has not gone unnoticed. The multinationals of industrial and processed food already have their lines certified as organic.
It will be easy for the minimally critical consumer to conclude that what these great brands are looking for is not social justice or caring for the environment, but to attract the pocket of the conscientious society and, as a gift, paint their image green. The assessment of the impact of what we consume resides in the critical capacity that we have as consumers, whether we think individually or also collectively. Do we only care about its effect on our health or also on society? "Being consistent implies new habits such as the season of each product, increasing consumption of fresh food or locating establishments where you can buy local food," explains Marta Rivera.
Science and traditional knowledge provide us with multiple evidences about the benefits of agroecological foods, however, the corporate media will continue to repeat the messages that generate doubts in this regard. Why? Who would lose if this diet became widespread? Txetxu, that day, he already knew how to guess. Seeing that headline, with the security that reveals the intimate secrets of the land and with a half smile that he barely drew, he declared: "The food industry is afraid of common sense."
By Patricia Dopazo Gallego and Sara Serrano