Monday, November 24, 2014
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Debunking the debunkers of organic food

"No more nutritious" sounds powerful but offers little insight into the overall value of organics or its impact on our health.

Debunking the debunkers of organic food

Consumers in the United States and around the world buy organics because they are concerned about pesticide and other chemical exposure, particularly for their children (a concern validated by the Stanford study and others), overall food safety, the impact of organic versus conventional farming on the environment, flavor, freshness, concern over animal welfare, and a desire to support local farmers, to name a few. (AP Photo)
Consumers in the United States and around the world buy organics because they are concerned about pesticide and other chemical exposure, particularly for their children (a concern validated by the Stanford study and others), overall food safety, the impact of organic versus conventional farming on the environment, flavor, freshness, concern over animal welfare, and a desire to support local farmers, to name a few. (AP Photo) AP Photo

By Michael Yudell

A recent study by Stanford University scientists claiming that “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods” has left in its wake a bizarre flurry of bad reporting about the value of organics. Don’t be fooled by such claims. Organic food may be no more nutritious than conventional food, but that offers little insight into the overall value of organics or its impact on the public’s health.

The study weighs in on whether organically farmed products are safer or healthier than their conventionally farmed cousins.

This is an important question for several reasons. First, organic products tend to be more expensive, sometimes significantly so, compared to non-organic products; if people are paying more, they deserve to know why. Second, if organic products turn out to be more nutritious, this would be an important argument supporting the value (health and economic) of organic farming. And third, if organic products turn out to be safer, by exposing consumers and the environment to fewer pesticides, then eating them might decrease the health risks and environmental impact associated with exposure to the chemicals.

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Despite all the hoopla, the Stanford study uncovers no new science. No experiments were done in its making. Instead, the authors collected and analyzed a slice of the broader literature on the subject of organic and conventional farming to draw their conclusions.

Nevertheless, such an approach, known as a meta-analysis, can be very interesting and informative — it gives general insight into the state of the field, letting other researchers and the public know (with some significant caveats) what the body of published research says on a particular subject. And while it can provide an overview, by no means can it provide a definitive understanding of the science, most certainly not in an evolving field.

What you may have been reading about in the news — “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce" or “Organic Food Study Stirs Controversy” — is, in fact, a completely manufactured controversy, helped along by both the strong claims of the study’s authors and those members of the media who’ve eaten up their argument. It takes the narrow finding from the Stanford study (that there are no nutritional differences between organic and conventionally raised food products) and draws broad conclusions about the overall value of organics.

Leading the charge was Roger Cohen, columnist at the New York Times, for whom the Stanford study was enough to dismiss organic products entirely. He calls organics “a fable of the pampered parts of the planet.” Cohen’s priority, and a noble one at that, is “the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century.” Cohen does admit, however, that “even if it’s not better for you, organic farming is probably better for the environment because less soil, flora and fauna are contaminated by chemicals.” Still, he calls “organic ideology … an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype.”

But the hype isn’t the alleged elitism or indulgence of organics. It’s coming from those who have used this one, narrow study to try to undermine the public’s perception of organic farming.

The truth is that belief in the nutritional value of organics is just one of many reasons motivating consumers to buy them. Even if organics are, in fact, no more nutritious, there remain compelling reasons to foster organic farming and to make it less expensive and better able to meet the needs of a growing world population.

Consumers in the United States and around the world buy organics because they are concerned about pesticide and other chemical exposure, particularly for their children (a concern validated by the Stanford study and others), overall food safety, the impact of organic versus conventional farming on the environment, flavor, freshness, concern over animal welfare, and a desire to support local farmers, to name a few.

It goes without saying that much of the media coverage and the study itself miss the larger point about organics. Yes, organic food is for now a largely over-priced indulgence. As the Stanford study itself notes, organic food sales in the U.S. have grown from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $26.7 billion in 2010, and consumers sometimes pay more than double for an organic product compared to a conventional one. Yes, Roger Cohen is right that organics, as currently constituted, may not be an answer to the world’s growing food problems. And, yes, the public may erroneously believe that organic products are something that they are not (in this case, according to this study, more nutritious).

Regardless, our current industrialized agriculture system is a failure, and there is broad consensus that it harms our environment and the public’s health. Conventional farming, known more descriptively as industrial farming, pollutes our water and land with pesticides and other agricultural byproducts like ammonia and manure, and significantly contributes to greenhouse gas production.

Industrial agriculture also can impose occupation-related hazards on farmworkers and their families, which include heat stress, musculoskeletal injuries, and exposure to pesticides and other agro-chemicals. At the same time, the rise of giant, conglomerate-owned farms has contributed to economic, social, and health challenges in rural farming communities.

Finally, industrial agriculture has a horrible record on animal welfare. Whether you are a PETA sympathizer or lover of a good rib-eye, the way industrial farms raise and treat the animals we eat not only reflects poorly on who we are as a people, but has implications for the public’s health: routine use of antibiotics in feed is a source of antibiotic resistance to human medicines, and livestock raised on factory farms are known to more easily transmit diseases to people (think swine flu).

Organics has risen largely as a response to these failures. Though it may be no more nutritious and may or may not be the answer to our long-term food needs, organics does demonstrate how farming methods can help feed us without the awful impacts that industrialized agriculture has on our environment and on the public’s health. We must find ways to do better for our sake, and for the sake of our planet.


Read more about The Public's Health.

About this blog
Michael Yudell, PhD, MPH Associate Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Jonathan Purtle, DrPH, MSc Assistant Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Janet Golden, PhD Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden
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