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This month's vegetable shortages and price increases in the UK were attributed to bad weather in Spain, outlining how important sustainable agricultural policy is to health with the changing availability of food sources. Organic food is embraced by many as part of a healthy lifestyle. Currently, the European Union accounts for 24% of the world's organic land, with the global organic market expected to increase by 2·5 times to US$200 billion by 2020. Whether an organic diet is healthier than a non-organic diet was the subject of a recent report commissioned by the European Parliament reviewing epidemiological, in vitro, and animal studies.
The report confirms earlier systematic reviews that described a scarcity of studies investigating the potential beneficial health effects of an organic diet. The largest of the epidemiology studies looking at allergies and atopic disease, the PARSIFAL study, studied 14 000 children aged 5–13 years in five European countries. It showed that children on a biodynamic diet in Steiner schools exhibited a lower prevalence of allergic symptoms. However, in all age groups, it was not possible to identify whether other healthy lifestyle factors related to the preference for organic food accounted for these associations.
One advantage of an organic plant diet is the restricted exposure to synthetic pesticides with potential neurotoxic, endocrine-disrupting, or carcinogenic properties. Exposure to pesticides during pregnancy in three long-term birth cohort studies was associated with negative effects on intelligence quotient and neuro-behavioural development. The report recommends that organic food is beneficial for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Organic food production also restricts the use of antibiotics in farmed animals and results in lower concentrations of crop cadmium. The report includes policy recommendations addressing both of these issues.
Large, prospective, long-term studies are needed as well as deeper examination of agricultural policy and health. Much still rests on the provision of robust multidisciplinary research to guide future food choices for health.