IT WAS the perfect research finding for a recession: organic food is no healthier than more intensively-farmed produce, so paying a premium price will not result in better nutrition. If we want to raise healthy children on a tight budget we can head for the cheaper range, backed by the UK's "official" view of organic food, the result of independent research commissioned by the Food Standards Agency.
In the production and distribution of food, however, nothing is that simple. Organic food may be a middle-class Holy Grail prized for its nutritional qualities, but most people who choose it are more intent on avoiding pesticide residues.
Having read both the fairytales and hefty reports from the European Commission, they see potential poison lurking in the skin of the brightest, rosiest, most irresistible apples. In 2006, the EC reported links between some cancers, male infertility and nervous system disorders and exposure to pesticides. No-one would spray an apple with a chemical designed to kill weeds and insects, then give it to a child to eat. Any child, and most adults, however, will look with deep suspicion on an irregularly shaped, mottled piece of fruit which has had to take its chances, without chemical help, against pests and diseases ... and regulations are intended to ensure that spraying is at a minimum level and some time before harvest.
It is not just pesticide use that prompts consumers to go organic. Some, recalling a childhood of peas squeezed straight from the pod into a greedy mouth or strawberries still warm from the sun, are searching for the "real" taste of local, seasonal fruit, vegetables or meat.
The early proselytizers for organic food were taking a stand for a small-is-beautiful world view in support of local producers in danger of being squeezed out of business by the power of major supermarkets. The apparently forgotten link between the soil and the plate was gradually re-acknowledged and 10 years ago consumer demand for organic produce in the UK was growing at a faster rate than supply.
Never slow to seize an opportunity, the supermarkets started to offer more organic lines - at a roughly one-third higher price. Until the recession, however, demand for organic produce continued to grow, as it did for fairtrade and locally-produced goods. Such consumer power can change the world for the better, but it is mired in confusion. It is time to resist the commercial interests that are turning shopping with a conscience into a flag of convenience for ever-more consumption.
Organically-reared animals are free-range and do not suffer the same incidence of disease as intensively-farmed pigs and chickens. Growing grain in great quantity by applying fertiliser produced a grain mountain instead of sustenance for the starving and resulted in producing beef by feeding grain to cows. It would make more environmental sense to graze livestock on pasture, but there is also an economic argument for farmers to produce beef without buying into the global agri-business for seed and fertiliser and cutting transport costs by selling their produce locally. Even improved grassland has costs beyond the financial: animals grazed on natural pasture have higher levels of vitamin E and the healthy fatty acids.
A decade-long study at the University of California found organically grown tomatoes contained more vitamin C and antioxidants than the same variety grown conventionally. A recent Danish study found that organic food did not contain higher levels of vitamins and minerals. Now the FSA's review of evidence from the last 50 years says there is no nutritional benefit from organic food. Only there's an appendix to the FSA report which says that levels of beta-carotene can be 53% higher in organic food. That shows that there's organic, and organic. The best way of being environmentally friendly, and getting the most nutritious and most flavoursome food, is to grow your own, but that brings its own problems. Organic gardeners who put manure on their vegetable patch must worry about the risk of E coli, and self-sufficiency is beyond the scope of the average garden.
So how to maximise nutrition and minimise environmental damage? Buy local.