Organics & Commercial Agriculture - with Dr Surf
When I first met Dr Surf it was out in the water at a local surf break seeing him gracefully barrel toward me on his Malibu surfboard at full speed. I later found out Dr Surf is Rod Jones, a scientist with a degree in Marine Botany and a PHD in Horticulture and Plant Physiology. For 15 years Rod had worked as a researcher studying how to grow vegetables that are high in vitamins and minerals. I sat down with Rod to discuss the current commercial food system and where organics fit in.
AB - What’s the fundamental difference between organic and conventional agriculture?
RJ- The main difference is organic farmers are not allowed to spray synthetic pesticides and herbicides and they look after the soil better. The main thing about organic growing is it looks after the environment. There’s been a lot of publicity in the mainstream media recently about mass extinctions; we have already seen a lot of insect species populations drop dramatically. And that is mainly because of commercial agriculture, there is no question about it. Spray Spray Spray! It’s easy to blame the growers but they are just doing what the supermarkets tell them to do.
AB - How are the health benefits of organic and conventionally grown food measured to draw a comparison?
RJ - The only way they can measure it is with long term research called an epidemiological study where they will go out and find at least 10-15 thousand people that say they only eat organic and then they’ll find 10-15 thousand people that just eat normal veggies then they track them year after year and decade after decade to monitor the disease and what they die of. It’s not inaccurate, but very general.
AB - Are these studies conclusions leading to an over-simplification of the origin of disease?
RJ - It is, but it’s the best we’ve got. Doctors and scientists are doing the best they can with the tools they have got. The other thing that scientists will do is they will find a compound that has been proven to limit a certain disease like lycopene in tomatoes, which gives it its red coloration, there is reasonable evidence that if you eat a lot of lycopene your prostate cancer risk is lower. So then scientists will grow a whole lot of commercially grown tomatoes then measure the lycopene level and then measure the lycopene levels in organically grown tomatoes, there is no significant difference. The difference in many health compounds is more pronounced between varieties, so if you get an old heirloom tomato variety, for example, it is more likely to have higher levels of lycopene than new varieties.
So my point is (and this is where I think the organic industry have missed the boat –and I hope they get back on it) they make the claim that if you eat organic veggies you’re going to be healthier. That’s not the most important benefit; my point is you’ve got to eat veggies no matter how they are grown. I don’t care how they’re grown if you eat enough that will keep you healthy. There has been a number of large studies done into vitamin supplements and they do little for your health compared to getting vitamins from vegetables and fruits. I’m very confident about that because the studies they did were massive, long term, hundreds of thousands of people. You can’t get your vitamins from a pill and stay healthy - you’ve got to get them from fruit and veg. There are plenty of good vitamins in fruit and veg that are grown commercially, but my point is it’s time to start looking after the planet, the soil and the insects and the birds and the best way to do that is to grow organic. But the problem is, first of all, is not all organic fruit and veg are as large or look as disease-free as conventionally grown, so consumers don’t like them. Most people in Australia buy their vegetables from supermarkets and the supermarkets in Australia are influenced by American supermarkets, and American supermarkets are all about how vegetables look: big, shiny and blemish-free. Secondly, organic produce is more expensive, and most consumers buy on price.
AB - If science says organics and commercially grown vegetables are nutritionally similar then what is the advantage of organic?
The advantage is that the organic growing system is less harmful to the environment, and the produce tends to be smaller so they are more nutritionally dense per gram and that’s a good thing. My main point is I think the average person is going to become more and more aware of all the recent problems in the environment and chemicals (used by commercial agriculture) cause a lot of problems with insect populations, no matter if they are pests or not. As I tell my kids, it’s up to us, if everyone goes to the supermarket and says I want to buy organic, the supermarkets will give you a wider range of organic produce at a better price because they go where the market leads them.
AB - When scientists look at a specific compound in food and label it as toxic why don’t they look at other compounds present that may moderate that toxicity?
RJ - Scientists are historically reductionists, which means they study one compound at a time. It’s a lot easier to concentrate on one compound, say for example vitamin C, because we know what vitamin C does and it’s easy to measure and see how particular growing conditions affect levels. Where things get really complicated is if you looked at three different plant compounds and their interaction, then all of a sudden it’s exponential in the number of different interactions and so difficult to measure what’s going on. The reason they study one compound is because it’s achievable, up until relatively recently you could not study the interaction of more than two compounds because it got so complicated that you never got any results. And if you don’t get results you can’t publish. The thing about science is we know virtually nothing, people watch TV and think ‘wow they know everything’ We know relatively fuck all, and that’s because we don’t have the technology to study it until relatively recently, technologies like proteomics and metabolomics will help us with these multi-compound studies.
AB – So it’s the best we have got?
RJ - It’s the best we can do, as I was talking about before when you do the epidemiological studies, you look at 30000 people and what they do over 30 years and what causes their death is the best we can do at the moment and it gives you a general idea, but that general idea may not be the full picture. But things are changing fast with the use of new technologies and computer data systems. One of the best examples is if you go to Medical School now, one of the things they will tell you is 40% of what we are telling you now is wrong, but the problem is we don’t know which 40% is wrong. And you will just forget it because medical knowledge is improving so fast.
AB - So are you saying the entire supplements industry is wrong or being prescribed vitamins is wrong, are we just guessing?
RJ –In western countries like Australia, if you have a reasonable diet you’re getting enough of all the vitamins and minerals. You see vitamins have been studied for over 100 years, we know a lot about them and what they do, and what the minimum amount you need is, which is surprisingly low. We know what vitamins do in our bodies, and we know what minerals do, but there’s a whole lot other things in foods that we’re not sure what they do, and the classic case is anti-oxidants which is this buzz-word at the moment. We don’t really know exactly what they do in our bodies. We know they are good for you from these large epidemiological studies, but until recently, the only tests for anti-oxidants were these things called ‘Invitro assays’, in other words, they were conducted in a test tube and had little to do with what they do in your body. We still reckon they’re good for you but how much do you have to take? We don’t know. What kind do you have to take? We don’t know. But we will know in 30 to 40 years, hopefully sooner.
AB - Regarding deficiencies in soil, a lot of people say that we are all magnesium deficient because of commercial agriculture. Is there any truth to that and how do scientists know this?
RJ - There’s a couple of big studies where they have gone back and looked soil constituents 50 years ago at a particular site and soil constituents now, and these sites were commercial farms and there were differences, including lower magnesium levels. But what that means as far as our health goes we don’t know. Also there’s been a lot of work on superphosphate effects on soils compared to manure. The organic manures are far better in the long term as they maintain a wider range of high nutrient levels and it goes back what I’m saying about looking after the environment and looking after the soil. A lot of growers understand this now because if they don’t do it they are losing money as their yields go down. Superphosphates are costing more and more whereas if you look after the soil and start adding organic material back, in the long run, it saves you money.
AB - In your studies on vegetables what did you find out about bug damage, is some bug damage ok?
A little bit of damage can be beneficial. We found that some of the compounds that are in brassicas (cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli) will increase if they get attacked by a caterpillar. As they taste bad the caterpillars won’t eat the whole plant, and it just so happens that these bad tasting compounds are also good for us. We found varieties of broccoli that were really high in some of these compounds tasted much the same to us, so they were better for you, but the problem for growers was the yield was 10 to 20% lower, the heads where small, so the supermarkets didn’t want them and the growers couldn’t sell them.
Generally, if you think of a salad there are certain types of lettuce leaves that are bitter like endive, that bitterness is good for you, we don’t know why yet, we just know that people that eat a lot of endive don’t get certain diseases. And that bitterness is what stops insects eating them.
AB - So eating for flavor and how a plant looks aren’t the best way to go, particularly if you are home growing?
RJ –That’s right. What we used to say to growers is turn the water off 10 days before you are going to pick (vegetables) because it condenses everything. You want something that’s nutritionally dense, but the problem is they are smaller and the grower won’t get as much money. Also if there is a bit of insect damage that’s a good thing, and don’t spray, try natural insect deterrents.
AB - So the natural way of growing is the best? Plants need bug damage and to be stressed?
RJ - A little bit. You don’t want the plant to be completely riddled with pests. If you’re growing them yourself and the plant gets a few caterpillars, it’s not going to do you any harm.
AB - Are organics more expensive because of the extra labor involved in the production?
No, it’s because you don’t get the yield, you don’t get as much per hectare, so they up the price in order to make it financially viable. Also, it’s a niche market at the moment catering to consumers with higher incomes who don’t mind paying a bit more.
AB - So the labor systems are efficient enough?
Yes, reasonably. And the good news is the organic sector is growing. What’s happening is that in some of our big export markets in Asia the organic market has just taken off. There’s better money in the organic market in beef for example. We send organic beef to Japan or China and they will pay a premium for it because they see it as clean food from Australia.
I’m hopeful the organic industry or someone says to the general public, listen if you care for the environment you must buy organic rather than commercially grown food because organic growing is not killing all the insects and organic growers are looking after their soil. In my view the biggest problem we have got as a human race is there is just too many of us, and we all have to be fed. Look now, they are still bulldozing forests up in Queensland and New South Wales for more farmland to feed more people, it just can’t go on like this, there’s going to be severe environmental consequences.
AB – So for food security, organics is the only way to achieve it?
RJ – People will argue that we have to grow commercially to get the highest yield per hectare and that maintains our food security, but in Australia we’ve got plenty of food, so we need to be smarter and if you want to make money, the smart way is organic. The margins for commercial growers have not gone up for the last 10-15 years, we are still paying the same price for carrots as we did 10 years ago, there’s little money in it these days. If you want a sustainable farming business, and look after the environment, you’ve got to grow organic. We as consumers have to get used to paying more money to buy organic, not just for our own benefit, but for the planet. Anyway that’s my view, whether it’s shared, I don’t know.
AB - I think there are more and more people believing that is the case, one more question. I heard about oxalic acid in spinach and its dangers. Is it dangerous? What is oxalic acid?
RJ – Oxalic Acid is a chemical that makes the plant unpalatable to insects. It makes it taste spiky, sharp. In humans it can reduce calcium uptake and has been linked to the formation of kidney stones if large amounts are consumed. It’s not really a problem in the spinach we eat because most of its bred out. It can be a problem in some things like rhubarb for example that has a lot of it, so that’s why you cook rhubarb.
AB - So you can have too much oxalic acid?
RJ – Yeah you can, it can be a problem, but you would have to eat a hell of a lot you know compared to sugar! (laughs) Look it can cause problems, it certainly can but you have to eat so much of it, I mean I eat baby spinach because it’s very low in oxalic acid, but if you eat the mature spinach it’s got a bit in it, so that’s why you blanch it, you don’t eat it raw. Look, really there’s a lot of people that like to bang drums about the ‘dangers’ of particular compounds because it makes them feel important but the main thing is you must eat a lot of Fruit and Veg and all this kerfuffle that it’s got a lot of chemicals on it, it’s just bullshit. The main thing is, just eat it.
AB - So eat a good variety of Fruit and Veg and if possible grow some at home?
Yeah, the daily dose varies but about 5 serves of Veg and 3 of fruit every day is ideal and the reason fruit is lower is because of sugar. But 90 percent of people don’t, I probably don’t myself, but I try. And eat a variety of different colors. As I say to my kids it’s got nothing to do with taste, you got to eat it. So I hope that’s useful.
AB – Dr Surf, thanks very much.
Rod Jones aka Dr Surf is a radio presenter on ‘Radio Marinara’ on RRR 102.7FM