Saturday, July 14, 2007

Petroleum-less agriculture

Imagine that the U.S. has transitioned its transportation system away from fossil-fuels and the bulk of our vehicles are powered by electricity supplied by land-based and offshore wind farms. Now imagine that organic agricultural has made substantial gains in supplanting fossil-fuel based agribusiness as our primary means of production. The latter certainly makes sense if it can be shown that organically grown produce is better for those who consume it and for Mother Earth as well. Better still, if it's locally grown. That is, in fact, what a ten-year study conducted at the University of California concludes.

Governmental or scientific information on the amount of petroleum used in U.S. agriculture is not currently available. The 1997 USDA Census of Agriculture does, however, list the costs associated with the use of petroleum and chemicals on farms. The total average amount spent on petroleum products per farm based on these data was $14,199.

Electric vehicles and organic/local farming. Their widespread adoption would go a long way toward weaning society from foreign oil, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions while improving the health of consumers and the environment. (GW)

It's official: organic really is better

Organic fruit and vegetables really are better for you

by Judith Woods
July 14, 2007

An increasing number of people have suspected it for years, but science, it seems, is finally catching up with common sense. A report stating that organic fruit and vegetables may be better for the heart and general health than crops grown conventionally comes as welcome news to those who have wondered whether it really is worth paying a premium for food produced without pesticides.

Ethics rather than empirical data have been the main force behind the boom in organics; we like the idea of sustainable agriculture, of fruit and vegetables cultivated without chemicals and livestock reared free of antibiotics. It certainly sounds as though it should be better for us, but actual proof that organic food is healthier has been thin on the ground.

Now a 10-year study comparing organic and non-organic tomatoes has found that the organic ones have almost twice the quantity of antioxidants (called flavonoids) that help to prevent high blood pressure, thus reducing the likelihood of heart disease and strokes.

According to the results of the research, which was carried out at the University of California, levels of the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol were, on average, 79 and 97 per cent higher respectively.

Flavonoids, which have also been linked to a reduction of some forms of cancer and dementia, are produced by plants as a defence mechanism where levels of nutrients in the soil are low. Conventional fertilisers mean nutrient levels are too high to promote flavonoid production, which is why organically grown crops are rich in these antioxidants.

"This sort of research is music to our ears," says Robin Maynard, campaigns director at the Soil Association, which promotes organic farming. "We know from a study carried out between 1940 and 1991 by the now defunct Ministry of Agriculture that UK-grown produce has shown a 12 to 76 per cent drop in a range of key nutrients.

"Non-organic farming uses more than 400 active ingredients, some of which prove to be so toxic they end up being banned. The founding ethos of the Soil Association is that healthy soil means healthy plants, healthy animals and healthy people. When a reputable study like this is published, people's gut feeling that organic production methods are right is backed up by science."

There have been other studies, too. In March, a European Union research programme reached similar conclusions about organic peaches, apples and tomatoes. In the case of all three fruits, there were higher levels of vitamin C and of flavonoids, as well as polyphenols, which can protect against cancer.

While no one would argue that higher levels of flavonoids are a bad thing, there are those who are sceptical of the overall health benefits and remain unconvinced that it's worth paying the higher cost of organic food. According to the investment bank Morgan Stanley, organic food is 63 per cent more expensive than its conventional counterpart.

Earlier this year, while he was still Environment Secretary, David Miliband, now Foreign Secretary, said that consumers who opted for organic foods, did so as a "lifestyle choice" and shouldn't assume they were consuming a nutritionally superior diet to anyone else.

The Food Standards Agency still declares itself "neither for nor against organic food" and the British Nutritional Foundation says the emphasis should be on eating five portions of fruit and veg a day, rather than getting sidelined over how they are cultivated.

Moreover, given that food miles - the distance food travels before it reaches our plates - has become an issue, some people feel that where food is grown is more important than how.

"I prefer using local produce because I can monitor the growing methods myself and speak to the farmers personally," says Duncan Welgemoed, a chef at The Five Horseshoes near Henley, who trained at The Fat Duck under Heston Blumenthal and at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, where Raymond Blanc promotes organic food.

"Locally-produced food travels a much shorter distance to the restaurant, cutting down carbon emissions,'' he says. ''That's why it's 'greener' than organic."

You can buy locally and organically, however, particularly if you sign up for an organic box scheme that sources and delivers within a small radius. Any nationwide box scheme will invariably be a compromise, with food grown in Britain supplemented by imported produce when stocks are unavailable.

But if the new research has impressed you and you are keen to buy organic tomatoes, there is, of course, a source that is both reliable, cheap and very local: grow your own.


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