Headlines are screaming: “Organic food no more nutritious than non-organic,” “Organic food is not healthier,” “New study finds scant evidence of health benefits.” Big Ag must be rubbing its collective hands with glee. They shouldn’t.
The report stirring so much interest is a survey published in the September 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. Stanford University scientists reviewed 237 studies in an attempt to answer the questions patients were asking the lead author, Dr. Dena Bravata: are organic foods better for me? Are they worth the extra cost?
Since no one had done a meta-analysis of the studies comparing conventional and organic produce, Bravata and her team set out to sift through thousands of papers in search of answers. They settled on the 237 most relevant.
What They Found: A Little Poison Is Okay
Stanford School of Medicine’s Michelle Brandt summarizes their findings: “After analyzing the data, the researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods.”
Overall, the studies found both kinds of food had similar vitamin content. Organic had more phosphorous, but few people have a deficiency in that nutrient. Protein and fat content of organic and conventional milk was similar, though the organic product delivered more omega-3 fatty acids. Organic produce contained less pesticide residue, organic meat less antibiotic-resistant bacteria. However, whether or not that was clinically significant was not clear.
None of the studies were long term, so the question of health benefits or detriments remained virtually unanswered. Those using human subjects ranged from two days to two years. Nor is it clear any of the studies compared the effects of a solely conventional or solely organic diet.
Organic produce was found to have less pesticide contamination than conventional, but none of the produce was pesticide free. Given the amount of pesticide contaminating land, water and air, that is hardly surprising.
The studies were the proverbial apples and oranges, and the researchers admit that “publication bias may be present” in some of them. That bias is what creeps in when those undertaking the study have organizational, corporate and/or monetary interest in a particular conclusion.
What They Did Not Find: Health Hazards of Conventional Systems
You can just hear the anti-organic crowd crowing and the chemical companies counting their profits. The problem is those headline writers are pouncing in ways that stretch the survey’s tepid findings all out of proportion. They are also overlooking the authors’ caveats about things they did not address, such as animal welfare, environmental impact and even the taste of organic food (unaided genetic engineering).
Those factors are huge. After all, we do not have another planet to live on once we ruin this one, and we can no longer pretend farm animals are unfeeling cogs in the wheels of industrial farming.
However, the main focus of the survey was health, so I will set those aside for this post. The survey cited in all the media reports is not a rigorous study. It is an analysis of reports that are all over the map in terms of their methodology, execution and bias.
More reliable findings can be found in the 2008 study published by the Organic Center: “New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods.” Unlike the Stanford work, this report only referred to studies that were carefully designed and conducted. Their thorough analysis found, in part:
Yes, organic plant-based foods are, on average, more nutritious in terms of their nutrient density for compounds validated by this study’s rigorous methodology.
The average serving of organic plant-based food contains 25% more of the nutrients encompassed in this study than a comparable-sized serving of the same food produced by conventional farming methods.
Another, more rigorous study is the Rodale Institute’s 30-year Farming Systems Trial, published in 2011. They looked at soil health, yields, economics, energy and human health. Conventional systems came up short. The toxins they rely on (such as pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides) accumulate in our bodies and lead to such things as:
- Lower math and reading skills in children
- DNA damage, infertility, low sperm count, prostate or testicular cancer in rats
- Brain/central nervous system disruption, breast, colon, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, kidney, testicular, and stomach and other cancers
The Cornucopia Institute Responds to the Stanford Survey
Mark A. Kastel is Senior Farm Policy Analyst for The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit that provides some of the most reliable information on sustainable and organic agriculture. He suggests the Stanford survey overlooked some essential pieces needed for an in-depth analysis:
They discounted many of the studies, including by the USDA, that show our conventional food supply’s nutritional content has dropped precipitously over the last 50 years. This has been attributed to the declining health of our farms’ soil, and healthy soil leads to healthy food. Organic farming’s core value is building soil fertility.
Furthermore, there are many externalities that impart risk on us as individuals and as a society, which the physicians failed to look at. For example, eating organic food protects us all from exposure to agrichemicals contaminating our water and air.
Additionally, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become ubiquitous in processed food with an estimated 80%-90% contaminated with patented genes by Monsanto and other biotechnology corporations. The use of GMOs is prohibited in organics.
Charlotte Vallaeys, Director of Farm and Food Policy, added:
For dozens of different types of fruits and vegetables, the USDA has found pesticide residues above the EPA’s threshold for children on conventionally grown samples, but not on organic samples.
These included foods that are very popular with young children, including apples, peaches, plums, pears, grapes, blueberries, strawberries and raisins. The pesticides found as residues on these conventional fruits have been linked to higher rates of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in a study by researchers at the University of Montreal and Harvard.
How Do You Choose?
We balance a lot of factors when we stand in the grocery store aisles or wander the stalls at the farmers’ market. A compromise-free life is not an option. We consider taste, nutrition, family preferences, and price. Into the mix go environmental costs, farm workers’ rights and animal welfare.
The Stanford survey feels like a flawed assessment of whether or not organic and conventional are comparable. Still, those involved in it sifted through mounds of papers and settled on those they considered most relevant. There are too many holes in their findings to influence my thinking, but I acknowledge I am already in the organic camp and intend to stay there. For me, the impact of conventional farming on the environment is unacceptable. Besides, I’ve been a farmer, and I am grateful to the people who are working so hard to provide me with high quality, sustainably grown food. I am willing to pay more to support them.
Care2 readers are a thoughtful, articulate and opinionated lot. How do you choose your food? What factors are most important to you? What compromises are you willing to make? What lines do you refuse to cross?
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