Organic or not? It all depends on your pocket, new research shows

Friday August 22 2008

A shopper at a shelf that sells organic food at

A shopper at a shelf that sells organic food at a city supermarket. There is ongoing debate on the nutritional benefits of eating organic foods. Photo/CHRIS OJOW 

By GATONYE GATHURA

Grow, buy, cook and eat organic foods for a long and healthy life. This is the latest fad in Kenya, that has seen eateries and other outlets proclaiming to sell “natural” foods springing up every other day.

Researchers, however, have dismissed this is as a load of manure.

A five-year campaign to sell organic foods as healthier has attained a 30 per cent annual market growth rate in Kenya, against the global average of 25 per cent. But are these foods really healthy?

The debate has been fast and furious and heated up last week, with researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark saying that organic produce does not actually contain any more nutrients than food grown using chemicals.

The new findings, published in the Society of Chemical Industry’s Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, concludes that organic crops are not any healthier and that eating them is a lifestyle choice for people who can afford them.

And now they say the term “organic” is often used as an excuse to charge more. The organics in Nairobi are not for people living below the poverty line of about Sh70 a day.

Many Kenyan families can ill afford a bunch of kales for two meals a day at the neighbourhood kiosk due to the spiralling inflation.

According to a leading organic farmer, Ms Sue Kahumbu, who is also the head of Green Dreams Ltd, a company helping farmers to market organic produce, consumer response has been overwhelming.

Ms Kahumbu pioneered the opening of the exclusive organic counter at Nakumatt Westgate and says sales increased by about 30 per cent within the first 45 days.

In an earlier interview with the Business Daily, she said the pricing was 20 per cent to 50 per cent above the conventional food produce.

“For instance, our spinach sells at Sh35 a kilo, while the conventional one sells at Sh15,” she said.

Propelled by radio, TV and billboard advertising pushing people to eat healthy, it is now in vogue to visit establishments that offer only organics - but the food comes at a princely sum.

What drives Ms Carol Odete, a senior administrative secretary with a blue-chip city company, to an expensive organic food restaurant on the other side of town?

“I read somewhere that organic foods have extra properties that protect one against cancer, hypertension and other diseases,” she says. “In any case, any girl who is somebody in town is eating organics.”

Ms Odete has not read a report of a Danish research, led by Dr Susanne Bügel and which presents a strong case against the organic movement, whose global sales hit the £2 billion mark last year.

Described as the first study ever to look at the retention of minerals and trace elements, animals were fed on a diet consisting of crops grown using three different cultivation methods in two seasons.

In the first method carrots, kales, mature peas, apples and potatoes were grown on soil which had a low input of nutrients using animal manure and no pesticides, except for one organically approved product on kale only.

The second involved applying low-input of nutrients using animal manure, combined with use of pesticides, as much as allowed by regulation.

The last comprised a combination of a high input of nutrients through mineral fertiliser and pesticides as legally allowed was used.
Interestingly, this study was supported by the Danish Research Centre for Organic Farming, a possible indication that there was no deliberate bias.

The crops were grown on the same or similar soil on adjacent fields at the same time and so experienced the same weather conditions and all were harvested at the same time.

The organic vegetables were grown on an established organic soil. After harvest, wrote the researchers, results showed no differences in the levels of major and trace elements in the fruits and vegetables grown using the three methods.

They did not stop there; the produce from the organically and conventionally grown crops was then fed to animals over a two-year period, during which the intake and excretion of various minerals and trace elements were measured.

According to the study, there was no difference in the retention of the elements regardless of how the crops were grown.

“No systematic differences between cultivation systems representing organic and conventional production methods were found across the five crops so the study does not support the belief that organically grown foodstuffs generally contain more major and trace elements than conventionally grown foodstuffs,” Dr Bügel had told the Daily Mail in an interview.

Research on the subject has been going on for almost 30 years and this study, no matter how credible it is, is not going to put the debate to bed.

However, the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (Koan) has dismissed the study, saying that the use of organic plots was wrong because the researchers should have used the conventional type.

“The produce in this study was analysed as dry matter, whereas most people will consume fruits and vegetables fresh,” says Ms Wanjiru Kamau, the Koan lobbying and advocacy manager.

“It is common knowledge that important nutrients are lost during processing.”

She also criticises the team for what she calls contradicting another study it conducted earlier indicating that animals fed on an organic diet were actually healthier than those feed on a conventional one.

Koan also argues that, while the developed world has managed to keep pesticide residue in foods at a legal level, the situation is not the same in Kenya.

According to a study it commissioned last year, most fruits and vegetables sold in Nairobi are contaminated with high levels of pesticide residue.

The study, says Mr Samuel Ndung’u, also of Koan, analysed green vegetables, tomatoes and potatoes collected from three different types of market in Nairobi.

Residue tests showed that all non-organic samples were contaminated with high levels of pesticide residue, some 53 times over internationally accepted levels.

Fresh products

But this study has been strongly censured by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) as misleading.

According to Dr Rhonest Ntayai, the chief analytical chemist at Kephis, apart from vegetables grown using sewage in some parts of Nairobi, fresh products stocked in the major supermarkets countrywide have been found to be safe.

He says Kephis has tested 132 samples of fresh produce in the market for the maximum residue levels and only a handful were found to be beyond the European Union recommended consumable levels.

But can one be sure they are actually buying organics? Koan believes some farmers may grow crops in conventional ways and pass them off as organic.

The organisation has established internal control systems which check against this kind of practice, including asking farmers to keep records and carrying out random inspections.