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Researchers recommend use of organic agricultural practices for human health

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In a review of existing research, commissioned by a committee of the European Parliament, a group of European researchers has identified benefits of organic food production for human health.

The researchers recommend the parliament to consider giving priority to certain organic production practices and their use also in conventional agriculture. The review resulted in the report “Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture”.

The experts list several advantages of methods used in organic agriculture that benefit human health. The support of animal health and the restrictive use of antibiotics in organic animal production lead to a lower risk for the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, which is a major public health threat. Preventive measures of plant protection and restrictions of pesticide use in organic agriculture lead to a decreased pesticide exposure of consumers, with benefits for human health. The experts also conclude that slight differences in the content of nutrients and other beneficial compounds between conventional and organic foods likely have no major implications for human health.

Assistant Professor Axel Mie, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, coordinated the work, and his conclusion is clear: “Several practices in organic agriculture, in particular the low use of pesticides and antibiotics, offer benefits for human health. Policymakers should support the use of such practices and their introduction in conventional agriculture, and make sure that organic agriculture continues to serve as a laboratory for the development of future healthy food systems.”

In particular, the experts conclude, pesticide exposures in Europe are too high and need to be better controlled. Co-author, Professor Philippe Grandjean from the University of Southern Denmark, says: “Exposures to some pesticides appear to be higher in Europe than in the USA, where three major studies have documented that children’s brain functions are reduced if the mother during pregnancy had elevated pesticide exposures.” He adds: “We shouldn’t risk our children’s brain functions for some short-sighted benefits in our food production. According to the report, Organic food production or so-called integrated pest management can serve this need.”

Associate Professor Stefan Gunnarsson from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences concludes regarding antibiotic resistant bacteria: “Organic farm animals are less likely to develop certain diseases related to intensive production compared to animals on conventional farms. As a consequence, less antibiotics for treating clinical diseases are required under organic management, where their prophylactic use also is strongly restricted. This decreases the risk for development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. For example, even if there are considerable differences in antibiotic use between species and countries, it has been found that antibiotic resistance is less common in organic pigs compared to conventional pigs in France, Italy, Denmark and Sweden.”

The report highlights several options for supporting and extending organic food production.

The report is available here: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/581922/EPRS_STU(2016)581922_EN.pdf