Monday, 14 July 2014

Soil Association versus science

The Soil Association's carefully worded announcement heading
I like to keep an eye on the UK's organic body, the Soil Association. I have been a little suspicious about their approach to science ever since I queried an outburst from them on the subject of nanoparticles six years ago.

In January 2008, the Soil Association, banned nanoparticles from organic products. Nanoparticles are ultra-small particles of anything, provided the substance is divided up into pieces that are just a few nanometres (billionths of a metre) across. But the Social Association specifically only banned man-made nanoparticles, claiming that natural ones (like soot) are fine because ‘life has evolved with these.’

This is just not an acceptable argument. If a nanoparticle is dangerous because of its scale – entirely possible, because the physics (rather than chemistry) of particles of this size is quite different from the objects we are familiar with – then that danger is just as present whether it’s natural or not. Even where scale isn’t the only factor, natural nanparticles can be dangerous because of the way they interact with the body.. Viruses are natural nanoparticles, and like soot, aren’t ideal for the health.

The Soil Association defends its position by saying that their approach is on a parallel with carbon dioxide in the air, where there is no problem with the natural carbon dioxide, only the manmade extra contribution. This is a specious argument, both because carbon dioxide is carbon dioxide, and if levels are too high it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from – but also because there is no comparison between CO2 and a nanoparticle that could be directly physically dangerous to humans.

To make matters worse, the Soil Association also say that it can’t control natural nanoparticles present in the environment, they’re just there. But this is relevant; the Soil Association isn’t an environmental control group. It is discussing what goes into organic products, and there is nothing to stop a manufacturer putting natural nanoparticles into a product either by accident or intent. You might as well say we don’t mind a manufacturer putting salmonella into organic food, because it’s natural. If the Soil Association believes nanoparticles are a bad thing, it should ban all nanoparticles from a product that gets their seal of approval, not just artificial ones.

In summing up, the Soil Association let slip the reason it takes this strange attitude. I was told by a representative ‘[T]he organic movement nearly always takes a principles-based regulatory approach, rather than a case-by-case approach based on scientific information.’ In other words, theirs is a knee-jerk reaction to concepts, rather than one based on actual science.

The latest example of this in action was a joyous announcement they sent out proclaiming that a 'landmark paper' had shown significant differences in the nutritional cogent of organic and non-organic crops. (Interestingly, they did not send out a similar email when the last two papers came out showing no significant differences.)

Even though the Soil Assocation email gives the appearance of celebrating a victory for organic food, it is very carefully never actually says that the study showed that organic food was nutritionally better - and there's a good reason for that it. It doesn't. The big item that the Soil Association flags up is that the study showed more antioxidants in organic food. Unfortunately, this is a dead duck argument. There is no known nutritional benefits from consuming antioxidants. The only known outcome is that if you consume too much (typically from supplements) it increases the risk of death. So quite why they were trumpeting this as if it's a good thing, I don't know.

The email goes on to mention a couple of other lesser items, including the old canard about pesticide residues. But what it fails to mention is that the only significant nutritional difference highlighted by the study was a negative for organics. It said that organic food had a small but significant deficit in protein compared with non-organic food. As Professor Tom Sanders of King's College, London commented to the BBC: 'In terms of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat), the organic products contained less protein. Other nutrient differences were trivial and well inside the normal range of variation that occurs with different varieties, soil types and variations in weather.'

Strange they didn't mention that.

This has been a Green Heretic production

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