In the largest study of its kind, an international team of experts led by Newcastle University found that organic crops are up to 69% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops, with significantly lower levels of toxic heavy metals and pesticides in organic crops, too. What’s more, it’s the first analysis to extensively review the results of hundreds of studies that have been published in the past few years. Over half of the research papers analysed in the Newcastle study were published after 2006, and therefore they were not considered or included in the much-criticised UK Food Standard Agency-sponsored study.
We’ve long known that organic farming is better for wildlife and better for the planet, and we also know it’s a key reason why our customers choose to buy our organic veg box. In fact, NO system of farming has higher wildlife benefits than organic farming. For example, research has found that overall plant, insect and bird life is 50% more abundant on organic farms, and there are 30% more species. Organic farming also releases less greenhouse gases per hectare than non-organic farming, so choosing organic, local and seasonal food can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. Organic farming is also better for animal welfare—another key reason why people are increasingly choosing to buy organic meat, eggs and dairy products.
But we also know that people often choose organic because they believe it has more of the “good” things, and less of the “nasties”. And this new research clearly supports this decision. Analysing over 340 studies into the compositional differences between organic and conventional crops, the researchers found that a switch to eating organic fruit, vegetable and cereals – and food made from them – would provide additional antioxidants equivalent to eating 1-2 extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
Numerous studies have linked antioxidants to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers. As organic grower, it’s just common sense: I don’t use pesticides, so I am banking on the innate health and vitality of my organic plants to enable them to fend for themselves. This means they develop greater concentrations of a range of a range of natural chemicals in order to fight pests and diseases—and it just so happen that these compounds contribute to nutritional quality of the fruit and veg! So organic food doesn’t just taste so much better; it’s actually better for you, too.
The researchers also found that eating organic can help to reduce the intake of potentially harmful heavy metals, such as cadmium, which are on average 48% lower in organic crops.
Finally, we know that eating organic can also help you to reduce your exposure to pesticides. Pesticides are found on one in three non-organic foods tested each year, and multiple residues of up to seven different compounds are not uncommon. But pesticide residues are rarely found in organic food.
As the Soil Association say, “organic is different, and the findings shatter the myth that how we farm does not affect the quality of the food we eat.” Let’s hope this ground-breaking research gives more people the confidence they need to make the switch and to choose organic.
We don’t grow organic asparagus up at Westmill, as conditions aren’t quite right. Instead, we buy it in from one of the best organic asparagus producers in the South: Liz and Hugh Collins of Kensons Farm, near Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Liz and Hugh are one of several local organic growers who we work closely with throughout the year, supplying each other with specialist veg! Find out more about Liz and Hugh at http://www.kensonsfarm.co.uk/
The last few days have been wonderfully warm, providing ideal conditions for growers. But clear skies at this time of year can also mean very cold nights. With 1,000 organic tomatoes and 800 organic peppers sitting in just one of our tunnels, pot-bound and waiting to be planted , we are all itching to get the crops in the ground. But it’s always a balancing act at this time of year: a hard frost can have a devastating impact on some non-hardy crops and it would be too late to start again. We’d have to buy in thousands and thousands of replacement plants at significant cost, or rely on buying in veg later in the year. Not good either way.
With news of a possible frost over the weekend, Ian and I spent a good few hours on Friday covering the most vulnerable crops in a fine fleece-like material called EcoFleece. We covered up the early potatoes, which are well out of the ground (I’m actually pretty chuffed with them!), as well as the French beans (left). The idea is that laying the fleece traps warmth that’s built up in the soil and keeps the young crops a few degrees warmer than they would have been outside (and protects them from windchill, too). We’ve even lit the paraffin burner in one or two of the tunnels where we are storing the more sensitive crops like peppers and tomatoes en masse.
Even a mild frost at this stage can shock young plants, knocking the harvest date back quite significantly – and throwing our cropping plans out of kilter. Take a look at the photo of the young potatoes we covered in fleece (right). We must have missed the young plant in the foreground, which has been hit by the cold (notice its darker colour and curled leaves. Although it will recover, the cold night could delay the tuber development on this individual plant by 10 days or more, while a hard frost can kill the more sensitive young plants like peppers and tomatoes outright.
So when it comes to planting our precious organic crops out at this time of year, experience teaches me that it’s always better to be safe than sorry – and to watch the weather forecasts without fail!
In this pic we’re incorporating a rye and vetch green manure into healthy, worm-rich soil before we plant main crop organic Cara potatoes…
Green manure is a term used for a group of plants that are sown after harvesting a crop specifically to benefit the next cash crop, rather than as a crop itself. They’re a vital tool for organic farmers and growers, and can be grown for just a few weeks, or over the winter, or a year or more.
Green manures have multiple benefits for the organic grower: they cover bare ground and help prevent soil erosion, add organic matter to the soil, suppress and out-compete weeds, mop up nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil (and stop them being washed away by rain), and break potential pest and disease cycles. They also provide useful habitats for a multitude of helpful insects and other wildlife! Some green manures are legumes (such as the vetch we’ve sown) and are known as ‘fixers’ because they absorb nitrogen from the air and store it in the soil in their root systems; others, like rye, are called ‘lifters’ because they lift nutrients in the soil and store it in their leaves and roots.
Before sowing the next crop, we incorporate (or plough/dig in) whatever green manure we’ve grown into the soil, where the billions of soil beasties that live beneath our feet – from bacteria and fungi right up to nematoes and earthworms – feast on the green manures, breaking it down to make the nutrients the green manure has absorbed available for the following cash crop. In this case, a field full of organic Cara spuds, destined for your organic veg boxes later this summer!
Green manures are just one way that organic farmers and growers can build soil fertility naturally – without relying on fossil-fuel guzzling artificial fertilisers.
Pete Richardson Westmill Organics