Why would anyone in his or her right mind choose to pay nearly double for an organic apple versus a conventional one? Many consumers believe that organic foods are more nutritious and healthful than conventional foods; a recent study by Stanford University scientists sought to find whether the pricey “perks” of organic foods are all they are cracked up to be. Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of the existing literature regarding conventional and organic farming, finding that “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” Despite all the hype from the media, the study uncovered no new science and no new experiments were conducted. Granted, meta-analyses can be informative and interesting, but they have the caveat of potentially being significantly biased, especially in an evolving field like organics where limited research has been done. In fact, according to Jody Biergiel, the Director of Handler Certification for CCOF, “there have been relatively few studies on the relative healthfulness of organic foods.”
The sensationalized issue in the news regarding organic versus conventional is, in fact, a largely manufactured controversy by the media, drawing broad conclusions from the narrow findings of the Stanford study. Roger Cohen, columnist at the New York Times and one of the controversy’s leaders, stated that organics are “a fable of the pampered parts of the planet” and that we should be focusing on the challenge of feeding an ever-increasing population. However, Cohen does admit 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.”
In discussing the limitations of their work, researchers admitted that specific organic practices are able to yield a safer product of higher nutritional quality than non-organic products. Crystal Smith-Spangler, an instructor in Stanford’s Division of General Medical Disciplines and leader of the study, noted that, “there’s a lot of variation between farming practices; it appears that there are a lot of different factors that are important in predicting nutritional quality and harms.” Researchers did discover that “consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” The study concluded that organic foods have a risk difference of 30%, compared to non organic foods, which was noted by lower levels of pesticide residues in urine from sample populations. According to Jim Riddle, the Organic Outreach Coordinator for the University of Minnesota, the metric for calculating risk difference can be seriously flawed and easily misinterpreted. “The Stanford team found that non organic foods are likely to contain pesticide residues 37% of the time and organic foods 7% of the time. Given those percentages, the risk of exposure to pesticides increases by 81% when someone chooses to consume nonorganic vs organic foods (37-7/37=81%). The risk of exposure to pesticide residues increases by 81%, not 30%.” In addition to pesticide residue findings, organic milk was found to provide significantly higher levels of nutrients and organic meat appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Whether or not the presence of pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria is harmful to human health was not covered in the study.
Tim Griffin, the director of Friedman’s Agriculture, Food and Environment program believes that the study’s findings on pesticide load differences between organic and conventional products are accurate. “These effects are very much in line with the major differences between organic and conventional production systems – pesticide use is much lower in organic systems, as is antibiotic use.”
Biergiel also noted that the main finding of the study – that organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional foods – might be somewhat irrelevant. “One of the key conclusions of the Stanford study was that organic consumers primarily buy organic food for its higher nutrition content. However, this is not what market research indicates. Consumers buy organic food because they care about the environment, and because they want to avoid exposure to synthetic pesticides and GMO ingredients. Organic food is the best choice in the grocery store to meet these consumer goals.”
After speaking with numerous Friedman students, it became clear that many of us buy organic for lots of reasons aside from nutritional values. Tristan Kaiser, a Friedman FPAN student, believes that organic food and agriculture are about long term payoffs regarding his own health and the health of the environment. “So what if there is no nutrient difference? The pesticide use and environmental degradation alone are enough to justify avoiding conventionally grown foods. Organic meat and vegetables just taste better, a couple bucks for a better meal is a better investment than years of medical care.” Organic consumers may be concerned about pesticide, chemical and bacteria exposure and overall food safety, concern for animal welfare, a desire to support local farmers, and the impact of organic versus conventional farming on the environment and flavor and freshness of their food.
Regardless of the study’s findings about the nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods, the study was effective in bringing attention to the value of organics and human health. There is a broad consensus that current industrialized agriculture is harming our environment and the public’s health and that it will not be sustainable in meeting the needs of a growing population.
Conventional industrial farming pollutes our water and land with pesticides and other agricultural byproducts and significantly contributes to greenhouse gas production. Industrial agriculture can pose occupation-related hazards from exposure to pesticides and other agro-chemicals for farm workers and their families. The rise of big farms and conventional farming methods in this country has added to economic, social and health challenges in rural farming communities. And industrial agriculture is notorious for its inhumane treatment of animals with implications for the public’s health due to routine use of antibiotics and the spread of disease between animals and people (a la swine flu).
If buying organic products can feed us without the negative impacts that industrialized agriculture has on our environment and the public’s health, then count me in dollar for dollar.
Amy Elvidge is beginning her first year as an AFE student. You can find her mingling with vendors at the Monday Farmers Market near her home in Central Square.