Garden birds shun organic

May 18, 2010

The nutritional benefits of organic food have been called into question by new research which shows wild garden birds prefer conventional seed to that which has been organically- grown.

A three-year study by Newcastle University has found that wild are not swayed by the organic label, but instead prefer the more protein-rich, conventional food that will help them to survive the winter.

Published today in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, lead researcher Dr Ailsa McKenzie said the findings were likely to be of "considerable interest to the general public in the debate over the relative merits of consuming organic food."

"Our results suggest that the current dogma that organic food is preferred to conventional food may not always be true," explains Dr McKenzie, based in the School of Biology at Newcastle University.

"Protein is an essential nutrient in the diet of all birds and mammals and getting enough of it - especially in winter - can be hard.

"We showed that when given free choice, opt for the conventional food over the organic, and the most likely explanation is its higher .

"This study is only looking at one aspect of the organic food debate - it does not take into account the long-term health implications of using chemical fertilisers and pesticides, or the often negative environmental impact of conventional farming; for example, other work has shown that pesticides can strongly reduce availability of seeds for birds.

"But it does raise questions about the nutritional benefits of organic food and what consumers are being led to believe."

Global demand for organic produce is increasing by £4billion annually - the organic market now accounts for between two and three per cent of all food purchased in Europe and the USA.

One key reason why consumers buy organic food is because they consider it to be better for human and animal health. While this may indeed be the case, these are not necessarily the only factors governing food choice in animals and birds.

To carry out the study the Newcastle team set up feeding stations in more than 30 gardens across the North of England. Organic and non-organic wheat seeds (both of the same variety) were placed in adjacent bird feeders and then the rate at which the birds ate the different seeds was monitored over a six week period.

Half way through the experiment the feeders were swapped around. The experiment was repeated in a second winter with different wheat samples.

The birds showed a strong preference for the conventional seed, eating significantly more of this than the organic. When the feeder positions were switched, the birds 'learnt' the new position of the conventional seed and continued to select it in preference to the organic.

Analysis of the wheat found the conventionally-grown seeds to have an average 10 per cent higher protein content than the organic seeds. Other differences between the samples (e.g. in mycotoxin levels, grain size, energy content or pesticide residues) could not explain the preferences shown by the birds.

The garden bird work was confirmed by laboratory studies on canaries, also showing a significant preference for conventionally- over organically-grown seeds.

Dr McKenzie explained: "Conventionally-grown crops tend to contain significantly higher levels of protein than those grown organically due to the application of inorganic nitrogen fertilisers in conventional farming systems.

"This makes our findings potentially applicable across many food types and suggests the issues surrounding organic food are not as cut and dried as some might think."

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5 / 5 (1) May 19, 2010
Interesting. However the immediate thought is that humankind has shown an indiscriminate liking for palpy white bread which was easily digestible, or "beef" burgers etc. So are birds no wiser than humans?

So birds like to eat the cake [seed] that is the tastiest [most filling]. To extrapolate that to the human organic food situation seems rather a faint connection. I am left with the uncomfortable thought: Is funding more likely if one talks humans and organic food?
3 / 5 (2) May 19, 2010
This study is crazy. So birds prefer food that is full of chemicals that they can't taste. Or maybe they can taste the leftover pesticides and like the taste.

From the 'science' point of view I'd like to know what hypothesis was being tested when somebody thought they would feed some seed to some birds.

The only reason I buy organic food is because it has less chemicals used in its production. That's what organic food is all about.
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2010
Consider the source: Published in the Chemical Industry Society journal.
There is an "oh, by the way"statement "it does not take into account the long-term health implications of using chemical fertilisers and pesticides, or the often negative environmental impact of conventional farming."

Wild birds survive without artificial feeding. Once the feeding is stopped do the birds starve or go elsewhere for food? I'm sure the canaries would die if they weren't fed.
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2010
Human beings tend to like insanely salty, sugary and fatty foods compared to what is actually going to make them feel good long-term. This doesn't suggest anything worthwhile. Add that to the knowledge this was published by the Chemical Industry... pfft nothing to see here move along...
4 / 5 (2) May 20, 2010
Chemical Industry Does not equal Pesticide industry. Your precious organic fertilizers also happen to be chemicals, so don't bother pulling out that bogeyman.

I have looked into this "Society of Chemical Industry" and found no overt bias towards either side. Furthermore, the research itself was funded by the following:
David Phillips Fellowship
NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) [UK]
British Trust for Ornithology


Finally, the article is making none of the broad conclusions I see being harped on by anyones comments. The conclusions simply seem to be there needs to be more research into the organic food; that such things are not simple cut and dried.
5 / 5 (1) May 23, 2010
Organic farming (natural chemicals, natural pest control)seems wasteful in the extra time, land, and money used in the process when the alternative is clearly going to yield more and healthier plants/seeds. Genetically modified crops and more efficient farming techniques can easily feed the growing masses in the future .Organic farming, talking about nutrient only here, is no different from artificial and if anything less efficient at meeting the plants nutrient needs. I'm also sure runoff from organic farming has the same effect in waterways as conventional fertilizers.

Washing things before you eat them and more concern for the world's waterways would go a long way towards the societal concerns associated with conventional farming.
not rated yet May 23, 2010
This study is crazy. So birds prefer food that is full of chemicals that they can't taste. Or maybe they can taste the leftover pesticides and like the taste.
Or maybe the use of pesticides and fertilizers produce more attractive foods with no perceived drawbacks.
The only reason I buy organic food is because it has less chemicals used in its production. That's what organic food is all about.

Actually you're incorrect. Organic food and regular food uses the same amounts or a greater amount on the organic side, the reasoning for this is because the chemicals are not tailored for particular effect and in turn you have to use MORE general chemicals to gain the same benefit that you receive from using targetted chemicals.

Above and beyond that all plants use the same chemicals for growth. Organic farming uses harsher pesticides and toxins as they must be naturally occuring, and only occur in small amounts naturally.
not rated yet May 23, 2010
Maybe non-organic seeds taste better.

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