Organic foods: Face to Face with reality

The usage of mass methods of food production to meet up with Africa’s massive population growth over the last 100yrs has met with stiff opposition amongst the African populace.

Perhaps partly due to lack of information from agricultural agents, Africans still find themselves geared towards the preference of organic foods over inorganic foods, a trend supported by their ill-informed counterparts in Europe and North America.

Today, as Africa’s population fast approaches the 1 billion mark, it is necessary for more radical measures to be taken, in regards to improving the nutritional standards. This preference of organic foods has been fuelled by the general approach to sustainable agriculture where renewable resources such as manure are used as this has, according to scientist, a milder effect on the environment.

The basic difference between organic and inorganic food is in the method of production. In organic (otherwise termed Bio or Eco) food production, crops are rotated, or left for grazing at intervals to allow the land to replenish itself naturally and remain fertile. In terms of organic Animal production, animals are reared according to their own natural behavior. They are allowed to roam and graze freely, or they are fed organic feed or grass grown without toxic and persistent pesticides. Animal production here is also devoid of growth hormones or antibiotics. In addition, processed meat products from organic animals are made without the use of synthetic, chemical or artificial compounds.

Inorganic production on the other hand, employs the use of man-made fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators and various feed additives. The result being the production of food at a faster pace and the use of less labour and space to achieve higher yield.

Recently the noticeable increase in inorganic food has been equally opposed by many environmental activists.
Africa today is at a point in her existence where food production must be matched pound for pound with population growth. The yields from organic farming when compared to conventional or inorganic farming is significantly lower. With the competition by man over the use of available land, we are at a point in time when we need to produce our foods using less space. Employing organic systems of farming especially in animal production would require the use of more land and thus the removal of more forest trees, which in turn would increase deforestation. For sure, this would have an effect on desertification, which appears to be threatening many parts of Africa today.

Inorganic food production reduces the time frame at which food stuffs attain market value. Organic on the other hand increases this time frame especially as animals would use the energy meant for production (weight gain or egg production) to roam around grazing or looking for food. Though the above can rightly be contested as it has been observed that animals produced under inorganic conditions contain more body fat, this can easily be corrected through a solid nutritional regime. Organic production also requires more capital and would take its toll on the final production cost thus making food prices higher than if they were made conventionally. Organic farming is thus incapable of meeting up with global food dependence. There is thus a valid fear that if farmers were to switch to organic methods of food production, Africa is more likely to go into an agricultural recession.

When comparing foods, we need to look at their nutritional value, sensory quality, and food safety. Current studies have revealed that there is little or no difference in the nutritional value of foods produced by inorganic means and those produced under organic conditions. Current comparison based on the sensory quality of foods appear conflicting and hence one cannot draw authoritative inference based on the above two factors. However, in terms of food safety it has shown that both have their own advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantages of inorganic foods appear easier to control than those of organic foods.

Though it is likely that organic foods are lower in pesticide residues, this can easily be controlled in inorganic foods through proper regulation of the use of pesticides and other chemicals.

Till date, Africa does not really have its own enforced laws differentiating between organic and inorganic farming as most of the definitions and standards are of European origin which would need to be modified in order to meet up to African Standards.

While trying to avoid the intake of artificial toxins through the consumption of inorganic foods, we forget that we stand a risk of ingesting natural toxins produced by harmful micro organisms. An example is E. coli which is present in feces. Its ingestion can cause illness such as diarrhea and even death. The problems associated with E. coli are usually irreversible. Such problems associated with these bacteria are permanent liver and kidney damage.
Looking at the big picture, E. coli is not only transmitted through animal produce such as meat. The use of poorly treated manure on soil is capable of transmitting E. coli to crops as well thus making the vegetables we eat equally as dangerous as the meat we eat.

Since the use of manure is not properly regulated to reduce the risk of E. coli in Africa, at this point it might appear inorganic foods might be safer.

Unlike the temperate countries, the African temperature favours the growth of bacteria and other disease causing pathogens. Bacteria multiply in millions; hence having just a little contamination of E. coli is just as bad. We need less manure to get to our abattoirs as the abattoirs themselves are poorly sanitized and are also another source of contamination for the food we eat.

The consumption of organic foods leaves us more predisposed to the more dangerous strain of E.coli. According to recent data compiled by the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC), we are more likely to be attacked by the deadly strain of E.coli (0157: H7) from the consumption of organic foods. In fact 2,471 cases of E. coli 0157: H7 were recorded in 1996 and it is estimated that a minimum of 250 deaths result each year in the United States alone from the consumption of organic foods.

There is also the general perception that the African ancestors thrived on such produce. However, this perception appears void of fact as there exists few or no general slaughtering houses which would have also reduced the risk of heavy bacterial contamination at one location. Nevertheless, I term the above forefather theory unauthoritative and baseless for one single fact: causes of deaths are poorly documented in Africa. Malaria might not be the sole cause of death amongst us Africans.  The use of poorly trained medical practitioners (other wise termed herbalists), who base their treatment mainly on trial and error, also has made it arduous to collect substantial data. In many instances, high body temperature has been diagnosed as malaria. Many of the illnesses could really be as a result of poorly regulated food production techniques such as the consumption of organic foods produced under unsatisfactory conditions.

It might shock you that, it is not only E. coli that can be associated with organic food production. There is also the relatively new, more virulent strain of salmonella bacteria (S. typhimurium) whose infection often is fatal. Although this can also be associated with inorganic foods, it has been observed that there is more likely to be salmonella in free-range chickens than in conventionally raised ones. Being an organic food consumer, you are also more exposed to the risk of aflatoxin, a toxin produced by the fungi Aspergillus flavus. Aflatoxin is in fact among the most carcinogenic substances known to man.

In addition to the above, bacteria E. coli and Listeria spp. can be found in soil and water which in turn could contaminate the vegetables we consume.

Even when proper measures are taken, researches have shown that in some cases the microbial contamination on food might be below an alarming amount.  However, improper processing and storage of partially contaminated food might lead to an increase in E. coli. We thus need to get these bacteria off as much as we can. This thus implies that we might need inorganic farming a lot more than we think. Perhaps a proper measure African authorities need to take would be to enforce stiffer laws governing the use of pesticides and other chemicals slightly different from the flawed laws drawn up by their European counterparts.

Jovi Otite

Jovi Otite (Ph.d) is the co-founder of BornBlack. He is an Animal Science Expert in Animal Reproduction, agriculture and alternative renewable energy.

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