Why I’m taking the Cancer Research UK headlines with a pinch of organic salt
Amy Leech - 28 March 2014
I’m surprised to see a reputable and well-respected charity like Cancer Research UK grabbing headlines based on emerging and uncertain evidence.
The headline Cancer Research UK went for was ’organic food doesn’t lower overall cancer risk’, while playing down the equally significant finding of the study, which found a ‘21% decrease in risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma cancer, among women who reported usually or always eating organic food’.
I’m not interested in playing headline tennis, what’s important here, and when discussing the impact of our diets on our health is detail. Scientists, public health experts and nutritionists alike will readily admit that this subject is complicated, and one we should all take a little more care communicating.
Let’s get back to the detail. There a few reasons why Cancer Research UK’s headline doesn’t cut the mustard in my opinion:
- This is emerging science and it’s surprising that a reputable charity would make such sweeping statements based on one study. As the researchers say: “no study has [previously] investigated organic food consumption in relation to cancer risk”.
- The researchers themselves say they can’t rule out chance as a reason for their findings, and admit the results may have been impacted by factors not accounted for in their study.
- Importantly, the researchers did not accurately quantify how much organic food women were eating, their measures ‘mostly’ and ‘always’ are frequencies not amounts. The statement ‘I always eat organic peanut butter, but never eat organic bread’ can be true for one person at the same time – which behaviour did the women in study self-report on?
- The researchers did not quantify exposure to pesticides via blood or skin tests, and therefore had no way of knowing if adults who eat organic ‘mostly’ or ‘never’ are more or less exposed to pesticides. This makes establishing a causal link between pesticide exposure and cancer risk impossible at this stage. As the authors say: “There has been no research done to say whether eating organic reduced pesticide exposure in adults.”
In summary, it is neither useful nor fair to create headlines which may influence behaviours on the back of the first study of this kind, a study with numerous and important limitations. It’s widely accepted that studying the relationship between diet and cancer is very challenging, given that processes that lead to development of cancer can operate over a lifetime and are hard to separate.
Such a thing as the impact of pesticide exposure on health is a small, albeit important, part of a million piece puzzle we are only just starting to solve. It cannot be denied that this research is incredibly important, it is welcome and essential and I’d hope that in 10 years’ time we’d have seen more research into this so we can start to make conclusions on this issue.
I personally don’t care whether eating organic reduces my cancer risk or not; among the many reasons I choose to buy organic is that we live on a finite planet with limited resources and we need to farm in a way that respects our limits. I also want to avoid eating, as much as possible, the 320 pesticides that can be routinely used in non-organic farming. I eat organic because I agree with Oliver DeSchutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food’s conclusion that “The food systems we have inherited from the twentieth century have failed...a new paradigm, focused on well-being, resilience and sustainability must be designed... it will not be enough to refine the logic of our food systems – it must instead be reversed”.
In the meantime, as Cancer Research UK well-know, some of the best advice on lifestyle we can give to people on how they, as individuals, can reduce cancer risk is to keep active and eat a balanced and varied diet. What we decide to eat is our choice, but our choices are influenced by what others say and do. Though I risk calling the kettle black, put simply, I think Cancer Research UK should be a little more careful with their words.
Amy is Senior Policy Officer at the Soil Association.