On Tuesday last, Dr Kim Reilly, Horticultural Research Officer with Teagasc in Kinsealy presented a comprehensive body of research to farmers and horticulturalists in advance of a farm walk around the organic and conventional trial plots in the North County Dublin research centre. This research was part of Dr. Michael Gaffney’s research group examining agronomic factors affecting the phytochemical accumulations in Irish grown vegetables. Interesting to note this research began when yours truly was Minister for Food and Horticulture in the Green/FF coalition in 2008.
Phytochemicals like anti-oxidants and flavonoids are also called plant bio-actives. Previous research on organic and conventional fruit and veg overlooked differences of plant varieties and farm locations. Dr. Reilly found these factors to be significant in measuring results. Accordingly, three control crops were sown in a multitude of growing methodology variations. The patch work of trial plots demonstrated conventional and organic varieties of onion, carrot and broccoli. The pest control methods ranged from chemical biocides to beetle banks to garlic sprays, depending on whether a crop was organically grown or otherwise. Likewise the four year crop rotation and a winter ground cover crop featured in the organic plots.
The results were very detailed. For example, the conventionally grown onion bulbs were heavier, but the flavonoid and phenolic levels were greater in the organic onions harvested. Likewise the organic broccoli showed higher levels of phytochemicals which have anti-cancer benefits. In the case of carrots, the organic carrots had higher flavonoid levels but the conventional carrots had higher phenolic levels, so the results had a couple of interesting twists too.
An overall analysis found that results can vary not just with the growing methodology, plant varieties, soil, climate etc., but year by year, the results varied too. Once again Nature has a way of keeping us curious about how she works and where she is going. The research is invaluable in moving on our understanding of the merits of working with Nature, not least because chemical sprays, being fossil-fuel based, are becoming unaffordable as the price of oil rises. Anyway, what farmer thinks it is a good idea to be handling poisins in one’s day to day work ? There are also clear market opportunities if labels can indicate health benefits in the fruit and vegetables grown in Ireland. Other research clearly shows biodiversity is richer in organic farming which goes down well with more environmentally aware consumers. Not surprising then, that the demand for organic produce in Ireland and worldwide continues to outstrip supply.
When all is said and done, any encouragement for people to eat a greater percentage of fresh fruit and vegetables in their diet is to be welcomed. Supporting local farmers and growing more of our own diverse fresh produce is a key to living healthily without over-spending. Dr Kim Reilly, Dr Micheal Gaffney and their colleagues at Teagasc, Kinsealy, have done us all a great service in separating the facts from the fiction. Given a choice, I will always choose locally grown organic fresh produce if available – which all to often means GIY - Grow it yourself, unless you can call by the Sonairte organic stall at Balbriggan Fish and Farmers’ Market on a Friday 10 – 2pm or call to Sonairte, Laytown www.sonairte.ieor the Dublin Food Co-Op.