In recent years, organic food and farming have increasingly been under the spotlight, stimulated by a growing consumer demand for better human and environmental health. This shift in consumer purchasing towards organic products is motivated by a number of factors:
- Organic avoids pesticides, antibiotics and nitrate residues in food.
- Organic ensures GM ingredients, hydrogenated fats, and controversial artificial colours and preservatives are banned under organic standards.
- Organic meets animal welfare standards - organic principles have been designed to ensure animals:
- Have access to natural air and light, and are able to go outdoors - reducing stress and disease
- Are able to adapt to local conditions
- Are provided with high-quality, organic feed (without substances that artificially promote growth)
- Have access to free-range pastures where fertilisers and pesticides have been severely restricted (weather and ground conditions permitting)
- Are able to regularly exercise
- Are not produced from cloned animals
- Are slaughtered as quickly and painlessly as possible, with welfare guaranteed during transportation (which is as short as possible)
The benefits to the environment also contribute to the appeal of organic produce. Intensive agriculture and livestock farming play a large role in climate change as the main emitters of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Organic farming helps creates a healthy living soil that is more resistant to drought, floods, and consequently the impacts of climate change. Non-organic food production is responsible for causing soil erosion, chemical run-off into water systems, and can mean some weeds, insects, and organisms become resistant to herbicides, pesticides, and antibiotics, with the subsequent risk of pathogen contamination from E. coli or mycotoxins, among others. Organic farming also helps protect biodiversity, such as plants, bees, birds, spiders, and butterflies, and natural resources.
Organic farmers work hard to select crop varieties with natural resistance to pests and disease, they build a healthy and fertile soil, and use antibiotics sparingly (only if necessary and recommended by a vet). Promotion of organic produce helps support farmers to adopt environmentally friendly farming methods and enhance rural development.
The consumer also benefits from improved intakes of important nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants (e.g., polyphenolics), and some vitamins and minerals (e.g. vitamin E and iron). Also, organic products contain lower concentrations of pesticides and toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium. 1 2 3
More education is required on the real cost of production of organic food, because non-organic food is not as cheap as it first appears. The costs of endangering human health and natural resources and using ecosystems as a ‘sink’ for pollution are not included in the retail price of non-organic produce. Consequently, in the long term, organic food is cheaper as it does not create as much expensive damage to human and environmental health.
For this reason, this month Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) Europe is joining the Soil Association’s annual celebration to promote sustainable and healthier produce. In doing so, we want to encourage hospitals to take the lead and increase the proportion of fresh, local, and organic food served to patients, staff, and visitors.
In addition, HCWH Europe supports local and organic farms and food businesses that usually involve few intermediaries and use short-supply chains as well as supporting hospitals that purchase and offer organic produce to their patients.
Becoming organic is easier for hospitals than some might think; as demonstrated by the Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Trust (formed by the British hospitals Royal Brompton, Bethlem Royal, Ealing General, and St George’s Tooting). In 2005, the trust held a breakfast designed to encourage staff, visitors, and patients to start the day with a balanced and nutritious breakfast with local, seasonal, and organic product. The breakfast included: porridge, fresh fruit salad, fairtrade tea and coffee, organic milk, free-range egg omelettes, low salt baked beans, grilled organic bacon and sausages).4 The trust’s aim is to increase local and organic food served in these four London NHS hospitals to 10%. It has been a gradual process - currently the milk and yogurt served is 100% organic, and once a week organic meat is served. Fresh bread, fruits, and vegetables are also from local bakeries and farms, with whom the hospitals have direct contact.
Hospitals elsewhere in Europe are also serving organic food, including in Austria, Denmark, France, and Sweden where national policies have incentivised the provision of organic produce in public institutions. In these countries, 40%-80% of produce served is organic. Organic produce is considered particularly important for neonates and infants in the Meyer Children Hospital in Florence (Italy), as the exposure to some chemicals in pesticides can be detrimental to physical and mental development.
Generally speaking, however, due to budget restrictions, food safety, and traceability reasons, organic produce is often limited in other hospitals. Another issue is that organic produce often has an irregular appearance compared to conventional food and some patients might refuse to eat it. Although these constraints hospitals should make a real commitment to provide organic produce on a budget for achieving environmental sustainability and protecting human health.
To learn more about How you can serve organic food for your patients and stay within budget in your hospital - attend CleanMed Europe 2016. Nina Johanne Spaabæk, Development Consultant in the Herlev and Gentofte Hospital in Denmark, will discus this very topic in one of the Sustainable food in healthcare sessions.5
Good things happen when you go organic - will you join us this September?
- Paola Hernández, Sustainable and Healthy Food Programme Assistant
Preview image: Michael S-R via Flickr cc
(1) Baranski, M. et al. (2014). Higher antioxidant concentrations and less cadmium and pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Nutrition. http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press/news/2015/10/organicvsnon-organicfood/
(2) Carlo Leifert et al. (2016). Higher PUFA and omega-3 PUFA, CLA, a-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic bovine milk: A systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analysis. British Journal of Nutrition. http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press/news/2016/02/organicandnon-organicmilkandmeat/
(3) Carlo Leifert et al. (2016). Composition differences between organic and conventional meat; a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition. http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press/news/2016/02/organicandnon-organicmilkandmeat/
(4) Press release: Royal Brompton Hospital serves up local organic “Brompton Breakfast” (2005). https://www.sustainweb.org/pdf/26_01_05.pdf
(5) Sustainable food in healthcare Conference on CleanMed Europe. http://www.cleanmedeurope.org/programme/day-3/parallel-session-d5
More information about organic food and farming