Organic research conference in Prague a success

Author: Kai Kreuzer/Sonika Aminforoughi

An international conference on the quality of organic food was held in the Czech capital from 18-20 May 2011. When it concluded on Friday afternoon, the three organizers had good reason to feel very pleased with themselves. With 40 talks and 70 poster presentations, discussions addressed the latest verification procedures, methods of analysis and the current state of research in general into the quality of organically produced food. The conference was attended by experts, predominantly scientists, from 30 countries, such as New Zealand, Bulgaria, Estonia, Turkey and the USA. After the first few presentations it quickly became clear that we’re really still only at the beginning although, as Machteld Huber from the Louis Bolk Institute in the Netherlands said, “the research results are pointing in the same direction.” What we are looking for is a conclusive method of determining the organic fingerprint that will clearly show the difference between organic and conventional food. (Picture: Johannes Kahl was delighted with the success of this scientific conference in Prague)


“With this conference, we’re on a par with international research conferences for the first time,” said Johannes Kahl, who for months shouldered the mammoth burden of coordination and preparation. The organizers, the international network “ the Association for Food Quality and Health” (FQH), the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT, Prague, Czech Republic) and Technology Platform Organics (TPOrganics), invited scientists, players and manufacturers from across the world. “This conference can take its place in the list of important events around the globe,” added Kahl, who lectures on organic food quality at the University of Kassel. He explained that, whereas earlier meetings of the eco-research network Organic Food Quality and Health (FGH, founded in 2003) brought together 30 – 50 participants, this time they attracted many other scientists and specialists in food research with whom they had hitherto had little contact. (Picture: Francois Hulot from the EU Commission welcoming the participants at the conference)

The contribution by the FAO representative Barbara Burlingame was refreshing and quite revolutionary. She described the policy change that is currently occurring in the Food and Agriculture Organisation – the biggest international UN organisation. It is shifting its focus from quantity in the context of conventional agriculture to biodiversity and ecological agriculture. So the title of her presentation was “Sustainable Diets: Nutrition as an Ecosystem Service”. She said that, if natural species variety was to be preserved, there had to be a code of conduct. Burlingame drew attention to two FAO conferences where the decision to pursue this approach had been taken, and to her book “Indigenous People’s Food Systems”. In her stimulating address, she drew atterntion to the huge reduction in crop varieties occurring in the main producer countries, and she pointed out that the varieties of rice cropped in Bangladesh had fallen from 5,000 to 23. A similar situation prevails worldwide in respect of rice, potatoes and other staple foods. She said that in most cases the nutritional value of modern varieties was much lower than that of earlier varieties. “Before we implement genetic technology, we ought to make use of the potential of old varieties,” she said, as she argued for a re-think of approach. After all, it is not just a question of tackling the problem of 925 million starving people but also of getting to grips with the loss of valuable agricultural land. (Picture above on right: Barbara Burlingame, FAO, making her standpoint clear)

Stressing the point that “health can never be seen in terms of a single indicator”, Urs Niggli (picture above left), from The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL, Switzerland), formulated a range of criteria, such as the impact on the environment that farms should take account of. Thus he reported the results of a current FiBL study that investigated and summarized over 300 scientific studies of various farm-management systems. The results indicate the positive impact of organic agriculture on the environment in over 80 % of the studies. (Picture: Professor Dr. Angelika Ploeger, University of Kassel, saw the need for more research in the field of food quality)

Not only the production of raw materials in agriculture but also processing play a hugely important part in food quality and safety. “80 % of the food we consume is processed,” declared Ursula Kretschmar-Rüger, also from FiBL. In 2007, for the first time, recommendations on the processing of organic food were drawn up by the European Union (EC 834/2007). The issue of processing had been inadequately addressed in the previous EU Organic Regulation. In 2008, a strict limit on permissible additives in organic processing was introduced (EC 889/2008). “Nevertheless, more and more processing technologies are being used in the manufacture of organic products that are not wholly in keeping with the EU Organic Regulation,” explained Kretschmar-Rüger. She is convinced that, although the sensory quality of a product is the decisive criterion for success on the food market, authenticity and the environmental impact of organic food are of great importance for the consumer. For this reason, product information of this kind should be stated on packaging. Since 2009, a general evaluation project has been running in the EU that is again investigating all the additives that were declared permissible in organic processing from 2008, in order to comply as closely as possible with the concept of “careful processing”. (Picture above: In the evening, many of the people attending the conference took advantage of a trip round Prague’s lovely old quarter, with its characteristic art nouveau buildings)

Throughout the conference, the issues that came up again and again were the “organic fingerprint” and how to find a method that can serve as a reliable indicator of organic, independent of organic fertliser, climate and soil. It’s not absolutely clear whether one such indicator can be found. Under the working title “novel methods”, various tentative analytical approaches were presented, and they could scarcely have been more different from each other. They ranged from the organic crystallisation method and the fluorescence method to analysis with a mass spectrometer. The last of these methods, presented by Jana Hajslova, seems at the moment to deliver the most plausible results. She is a professor at the Institute of Chemical Technology in the University of Prague, and responsible for food safety. She examined 63 identifiers, in particular pesticide residues, to which she allocated markers. After a large number of analyses of milk, apples, potatoes and paprika, she succeeded in establishing a precise fingerprint of organic and conventional foods.

Fluorescence fingerprinting to determine differences in quality between foods of organic and conventional origin was the subject of much lively discussion during the conference. Ines Birlouez-Aragon from Spectralys Innovation, Biocitech in France, reported on the successful results gained from this technique of analyzing the effects of processing and storage on the quality of food. However, she said that “processing has more impact on food quality than raw materials of different qualities.” (Picture: Graphic by Ines Birlouez-Aragon, Spectralys Innovation in Romainville)

The OrgTrace Project, that was presented by Sǿren Husted from the University of Copenhagen, uses a different idea. “Inorganic nitrogen has a completely different isotope signature than organic nitrogen that originates in the air or in organic fertilizer. Could that be the solution in the future? Or is it at least a promising lead? It seems more likely that we’ll go in the direction of science which does not rely on a single indicator but on several parameters and methods. However, what these might be has still to be established by painstaking analytical work. One thing is clear: with thousands of possible micro- nutrients and components in food, it is difficult to shortlist any of the methods. (Picture on right: Machteld Huber from Louis Bolk Institute in Driebergen, Netherlands)

One strand of the discussion at the conference suggested that there is possibly little sense in seeking salvation in scientific dissection down to the last molecule but that the benefit of organic is ultimately also dependent on lifestyle. A study of the significantly lower susceptibility to allergies of children of anthroposophic parents revealed a large number of differences in their lifestyle compared with that of the normal population. Presumably, it was these differences that gave rise to the reduced susceptibility. Other researchers too suspect one of the health benefits of organic food is higher resistance in organic consumers to disease. Experiments with chicks have already been conducted. After inducing disease, sick organic chicks recovered more rapidly. (Picture: In the breaks, participants had a chance to have a good look at the 70 different posters displayed on room divider panels)

Saskia von Ruth, from the research institute RIKILT in Wageningen (Netherlands), is also of the opinion that we need different methods for different products. Using carotenoids as markers, she carried out a study of 4,000 eggs. With parameters selected for her study, Karlis Briviba, from the state-run Max Rubner Institute in Karlsruhe, was not able to detect any significant differences between organic and conventional unfiltered apple juice, but she was able to confirm that the well known “an apple a day…” really does apply. It has been scientifically proved that apples and unfiltered apple juice can reduce DNA damage (responsible for, among other things, cancer) by virtue of their high polyphenol content. That, at least, was good news! (Picture: In the audience at the front on the left – organic pioneer Claude Aubert from France)

Johannes Kahl said that the message of the conference was that organic cannot be reduced simply to the analysis of the components. Organic farmers must not just rely on adhering to organic guidelines but must also bear in mind the effects of species variety. We also have to keep a critical watch on processing, because it has a crucial effect on maintaining value. (Picture: The people responsible for arranging the conference: Jana Hajslová from the University of Prague, Machteld Huber from the Louis Bolk Institute and Johannes Kahl from the University of Kassel-Witzenhausen at the end of the conference)


FQH: what’s behind this abbreviation?

The association Organic Food Quality & Health, that is registered in the Netherlands, is supported by 14 research institutes in Europe (the exception is Sekem in Egypt). They include FiBL (Switzerland/Germany), ITAB in France, ICROFS in Denmark, the Loius Bolk Institute in the Netherlands, the Univerity of Kassel, the Organic Research Centre in Britain, the University of Warsaw and the Institute for Chemical Technology in Prague. The association collaborates closely with the research platform TP Organics. It was created in mid-2007 with the aim of bringing together the various reaearch interests of the organic sector so that they could have a coordinated approach the EU Commission. In his lecture in Prague, Francois Hulot from the EU Commission (DG agri) (see picture on the left at the top) praised the grand vision laid out to 2025 by the project. He said it was a matter of establishing more clearly the additional benefits of organic food and of promoting “ecofunctional intensification” in the EU. The chairman of TP Organics, Jiri Urban (picture on right), the former deputy minister of agriculture in the Czech Republic, elaborated at the beginning of the conference the aims and methods of the technology platform.  and 


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