Organic food: higher quality, lower costs


Europeans will soon be able to enjoy high quality organic food that is cheaper and safer than ever before, thanks to research by the Quality Low Input Food (QLIF) project.

Food safety scares as well as environmental concerns mean that the organic food sector is booming. In 2006 the global market for organic products was valued at around EUR 25 billion, with most of the demand coming from Europe, North America and East Asia. On the supply side, some 30.4 million hectares of farmland worldwide are certified as organic, of which a quarter are in Europe. In the EU, over six million hectares of agricultural land, equivalent to around 4 per cent of the total agricultural area, are either fully organic or under conversion. The country with the highest percentage of its agricultural land in organic production is Austria, with 11 per cent.


Farming with a softer touch

The aim of organic and other ‘low input’ farming systems is to reduce the use of chemosynthetic mineral fertilisers, crop protection products (herbicides, pesticides and fungicides for example), veterinary medicines (such as antibiotics) and animal growth regulators and food additives.

Instead, these systems rely on a range of management techniques designed to prevent problems, such as pests, diseases or weeds, from arising. When problems are found, they are treated using methods which are less harmful to the environment than conventional farming techniques. For example, in low input systems, pests are controlled by their natural enemies, and not by pesticides.

However, the lower yields and resulting higher prices of organic and ‘low input’ foods prevent many consumers from buying them.

Making something good even better

The QLIF project has four aims: to improve the quality and nutritional value of organic and low input foods; to bring down their cost; to minimise food safety risks along the food chain from the farm to the fork; and to bring down the environmental impact of these farming systems still further.

The first step of the project was to find out what Europeans want and expect from organic and low input systems, and to this end the project partners carried out a pan-European survey.

This revealed similar priorities right across Europe, with the absence of microbial pathogens, chemical residues such as pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) coming top of the list. Consumers also expressed a desire for tastier foods containing higher levels of key nutrients such as minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. These findings were used to focus the project’s research goals.

Organic vs Conventional – which is healthier?

An important part of the project entailed comparing the nutritional value of organic foods against their conventionally produced counterparts. The results showed that for fruit and vegetables, the organic foods were found to have up to 40 % more antioxidants, while organic milk contained up to 60 % more antioxidants and healthy fatty acids.

From the lab to the field

To do their research, the QLIF team took to the fields, where they grew a range of crops (tomato, lettuce, onion, potato, carrot, cabbage, apples and wheat) using different organic and low input techniques to find out what would give the best crop in terms of quality, safety and price. They also reared animals to investigate the low input production of pork, dairy and poultry products.

In the crop strand of the project, the team identified the most effective low input management techniques, such as novel seed treatments, disease-suppressive composts and crop rotations, in which the same field is planted with different crops in different years. This technique avoids the accumulation of crop specific pests and diseases in agricultural ecosystems. They also selected the crop varieties and strategies which enabled farmers to reduce chemical inputs while delivering on the taste and nutritional desires of consumers and boosting overall crop yield.

Meanwhile the goal of the dairy strand of the project was to investigate feeding regimes and health management practices that would optimise animal health and welfare while reducing mastitis incidence and associated antibiotic use. The project partners also identified the diets most likely to boost the production of milk, which is higher in fatty acids and antioxidants and can therefore be said to have ‘enhanced nutritional quality’.

A major challenge in poultry and pig management is animal health, and the project partners invested considerable effort into investigating the use of alternative treatments, such as herbal medicines to control gastrointestinal pathogens and parasites.

The consumer survey also revealed that food safety is a high priority, and so detailed risk assessments were carried out on the transfer of enteric pathogens, mycotoxins and heavy metal contamination in organic and low input systems.

The studies revealed that there is no significant difference in food safety risks between low and high input systems, and in some cases, the risks were actually lower in organic and ‘low input’ systems. For example, the risk of pigs shedding Salmonella in their faeces was shown to be lower in organic and conventional free-range production systems, while the heavy metal content in several crops fertilised with manure compost was lower than that of crops treated with mineral fertilisers.

Spreading the word

The project’s findings are being translated into a series of manuals designed to help farmers apply the techniques studied in their own fields. According to Professor Leifert, coordinator of QLIF, the knowledge generated during the project, together with findings from other, related projects, could be used to create a European strategy on food production. This could be applied to boost public health by improving food composition and nutrition and, importantly, boost consumer confidence in foods produced in Europe.