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Study Finds Organic Food Isn't Better Quality

In a German supermarket
In a German supermarket
Carsten Dierig

BERLIN — The quality of organic food products is no better than non-organic offerings. At least that's the result of a recent study by the consumer portal Vergleich.org. The study compared 49 test reports by German consumer organization Stiftung Warentest, which, over the course of a decade, analyzed approximately 1,000 food products ranging from meat, fish and dairy to bread, potato dumplings and candy.

The result? Organic foods, which are generally thought to be healthier and more ecologically friendly, got an average score of 2.95 out of 6 (1 being the best score and 6 the worst). Conventional foodstuffs got 2.91. "On average, you can state that the quality of organic food stuffs is no better than that of conventional food products," says Michelle Günter of Vergleich.org. This assessment is supported by nutritional scientists.

"The nutrients contained within a food are not altered by the method of its cultivation," says a university lecturer who wishes to remain anonymous. "It will never be possible to prove that the consumption of organic food makes a difference to human metabolism."

Felix Prinz Zu Löwenstein, chairman of the German Association for Ecological Food Cultivation (BÖLW), does not contradict these statements. "The differences in classic nutrients contained in organic and conventional foods are indeed only minimal." He acknowledges that in a blind tasting no one would be able to tell if something is organic or not. But he stresses that it is not the food quality that is important when it comes to organic food — the quality of its cultivation is what's pertinent. "Where organic food is concerned, production and effect of the products are crucial."

What are the consequences of food production on the environment?

"Conventional foods are synonymous with intensive livestock farming and extensive exploitation of the Earth. Organic, on the other hand, ensures an appropriate livestock environment, groundwater protection and biodiversity," says Zu Löwenstein. These aren't factors Stiftung Warentesttook into account when they conducted their tests.

Instead, Stiftung Warentest focused on smell, taste, consistency, texture and appearance. It also paid close attention to bacteria and yeast. The researchers analyzed how safe and hygienic the product was to consume.

A market in Berlin — Photo: Abbilder

"The results demonstrate that not every certified organic food product provides the optimal sensory experience. Nor is it free of pollutants. Conventional products can also be tasty and low in pollutants," the Vergleich.org study noted.

What's interesting is that the quality of premium organic products is not really any better than that of organic products from a discount supermarket, says Günter. While discount organic foods were given an average score of 2.73, premium organic food stuffs received an average score of 2.95.

The authors of the Vergleich.org study were also unable to determine significant differences between organic seals of approval despite the fact that organizations have different standards regarding animal rearing or the use of emissions-increasing nitrogenous fertilizer. The EU organic seal of approval allows for up to 0.9% of genetically-modified organisms to be present in food. "We may therefore assume that the different standards these organizations apply do not have any influence on the quality of the product whatsoever," says Günter.

Zu Löwenstein thinks the devil is in the details when it comes to criteria applied to organic seals of approval and to compare organic food products with conventional offerings. "Even if the amount of nutrients contained in food seem to be the same with conventional and organic products at first glance, there can be significant differences between these in the end," he says.

Löwenstein explains that there are secondary plant compounds in organic food that products treated with pesticides and fungicides do not contain. "The body needs these plant compounds in order to fight cancer cells," he says.

Moreover, concentrated feed given to animals makes their meat and milk contain less Omega-3 fatty acids than their organic counterparts. These nutrients are vital to humans as our bodies are not able to produce them.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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