Study shows that the health benefits of organic produce are negligible

A tomato by any other name would taste exactly the same.

It is a scientific fact that people who buy organic food are smugger than your average fertilizer-guzzling pleb. Anecdotal case-in-point: I once knew a guy who was reluctant to eat anything at my house because it was from Tesco’s (shakes fist at soulless corporate bastards) and non-organic. Obviously, I was unfortunate enough to cross paths with the wretched 0.001 per cent everyone talks about - you know, the kind that is rude enough to look down on perfectly fine food because it’s non-organic. Consequently, I am a worse, more bitter person for it, so please take the following blog post with a pinch of fleur de sel.

And so, although the organic food debate has been done to death since about 2005, I’ll take recent research evidence from Stanford (a meta-analysis of 237 studies written in English) as an opportunity to smugly point out that organic food may very well be the most effective marketing ploy of recent times. As the New York Times highlights:

They concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli.

The researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats.

Conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residue, but the levels were almost always under the allowed safety limits, the scientists said. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the limits at levels that it says do not harm humans.

As noted by Businessinsider, the main finding in favour of the organic food cause was that organic produce is 30 per cent less likely to contain traces of pesticides. The researchers note that small levels of pesticides don’t hurt anyone, but also point to various studies have shown that children who consumed fewer pesticides had higher IQs later in life. (I haven’t actually read these studies, but am, on the outset, skeptical of accepting causality – the types of parents who actively worry about feeding their kids fertilizers are probably as concerned in other spheres as well). Of course, for the sake of fairness, it is worth pointing out that the US ‘certified organic’ label is a bit of a fraud anyway, and may have distorted the study.

Still, most people don’t pay a 10 to 40 per cent premium for the added nutritional value. Many cite environmental concerns as their main reason for doing so. But the environmental benefits of forgoing potentially ecosystem-disrupting pesticides in favour of less efficient, more resource-intensive crops are at best contentious.

Not to mention the fact that were it not for the Green Revolution, we’d probably be eating each other in an apocalyptic Malthusian nightmare. (But at least we’d be eating pesticide-free thumbsticks).

But this isn’t about rehashing the pro/cons of organic eating. It’s about the fact that there is a new Organic Café on Kingsland Road, a few shops away from the Organic Supermarket. What does that even mean? A café “of, relating to, or deriving from living matter”? The organic label has made hitherto undifferentiated commodities into bastions of socially acceptable snobbery, artificially (rather than organically) distinguishing “luxury” or premium goods from normal - or in some people’s eyes - inferior, products (cf. opening anecdote - not at all resentful). The fact that there are no appreciable benefits to organic produce can only mean that an organic tomato has become a Veblen good for which demand increases with price. It is not a Gucci bag, but the principle is more or less the same; in this case, consumption is slightly less conspicuous in the sense that it points to a certain lifestyle rather than serving as an explicit demonstration of wealth (which would be crude). 

Photograph: Getty Images
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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital