Songbirds and Organic Wheat


A paper by a U.K. research team entitled “Birds select conventional over organic wheat when given free choice” appeared in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. The team reports that birds prefer conventional wheat over organic wheat when given a choice, and attribute the preference expressed by bird feeding behavior to the approximately 10% higher protein content in the conventional wheat.

Because of higher levels of nitrogen fertilizer use on conventional farms, conventional food often includes higher levels of protein than organic food. But because protein is a nutrient present at ample to excessive levels in the typical western diet, this advantage for conventional food does not lead to any significant health benefits in countries like the U.K. and U.S.

The authors go on to make several questionable statements based on their experimental findings. For example, they conclude that –

“Our results suggest that the current dogma that organic food is preferred to conventional food may not always be true, which is of considerable importance for consumer perceptions of organically grown food.”

People do not seek out conventional or organic wheat to increase their average daily protein intakes, nor do preferences expressed by birds in an experiment like this one have anything to do with the reasons some consumers choose to purchase organic wheat and support organic wheat farmers.

The study has attracted considerable press attention and strong criticism for overstating its findings. In a May 19, 2010 story in the Los Angeles Times, one of the authors of the study acknowledged that – “Just because the birds preferred conventional food doesn’t mean it’s better for them.” The study makes no mention of the impacts of pesticide use on bird populations.

Source: Ailsa McKenzie, and Mark Whittingham, “Birds select conventional over organic wheat when given free choice,” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, in press, 2010.