Just about every newspaper, magazine and website picked up the latest health news last week: A new study from Stanford University suggested that organic food was not more nutritious than conventional food. The way the information was presented often implied that organic food wasn’t worth the extra cost, after all. Behind each headline, you could just hear conventional agriculture advocates saying “Told you so!”
What the analysis says
The majority of the problem wasn’t the research, which was published Sept. 4 in the Annals of Internal Medicine and examined 200 peer-reviewed studies, but how it was interpreted as “Now we have no reason to buy organic.” Let’s clear up one thing: “Nutritious” and “healthy” are not completely synonymous. An apple can be nutritious but loaded with potentially harmful pesticides (which we don’t consider healthy).
The study didn’t find any evidence to support the theory that organic food had a higher nutrition profile, but it did find that conventional foods had significantly more pesticides; about 38% of conventional produce contained detectable amounts of pesticides, while pesticides were only found on 7% of organic produce. (While organic farmers can’t use synthetic pesticides, pesticides can make it onto their crops through pesticide drift, which the study’s co-author, Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler, told Life’s Little Mysteries is defined as “persistent pesticides in the soil from previous conventional farming, storage or harvesting practices resulting in contamination or mislabeling.”)
Two of the studies analyzed by Stanford researchers found significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children who ate organic food instead of conventional food, but no meaningful differences were found in adults. The risk of contamination by E. coli was the same for both conventional and organic produce, and bacterial contamination of chicken and pork was the same in both farming methods. However, researchers did find that conventional chicken and pork was 33% more likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which many experts blame on the overuse of antibiotics.
Possible flaws of the meta-analysis
The main issue with the research was that it wasn’t looking at health outcomes in people over the long term; it examined studies that spanned over a short period of eating organic food. Charles Benbrook, a researcher at the Organic Center in Boulder, Colo., told the Washington Post that this isn’t exactly a reliable standard. “Switching from conventional to organic food isn’t apt to show huge clinical improvements in health within two years,” Benbrook said.
Is it true? Organic isn’t more nutritious?
The USDA makes no claims that organic foods are safer or more nutritious than conventional ones. That said, there have been studies supporting such a claim. One study, National Public Radio noted, analyzed tomatoes grown on conventional and organic farms over 10 years and found that the organic ones contained more antioxidants. The Food Marketing Institute noted another study, published in 2003 in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, that found higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants in organic corn, strawberries and marion berries.
But whether or not organic foods are more nutritious than their conventional counterpoints isn’t really the point. Here's what is:
A 2003 study found that both organic-food proponents and consumer who chose conventional food believed that pesticides are not responsibly dealt with, the risks posed by pesticides are not taken seriously enough and that produce sans pesticides are healthier.
Although the USDA, Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency all claim that pesticide levels in food don’t exceed government safety thresholds, many consumers — and health experts — are still concerned. In response to the Stanford meta-analysis, Michael Pollan told KQED News: “The study said all these pesticide residues in conventional produce are permissible under EPA rules. They may be, but there's a question of how adequate those rules are. Because there are questions about whether those levels are okay for children and for pregnant women.”
The man has a point. Three 2011 studies investigated pregnant women who had been exposed to high amounts of pesticides and found that their children’s IQs averaged several points lower than other kids their age. Another study, in 2010, found a link between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the amount of pesticide in children’s urine — remember, the Stanford study found higher levels of pesticides in the urine of children who ate a conventional food diet.
The farmers’ health!
We the consumers aren’t the only ones affected (or not affected) by pesticides. Conventional farmers are exposed to them every day in a much more direct way — and the effects of the chemicals on their health isn’t so questionable. In a New York Times discussion, Raj Patel — a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy and author of “The Value of Nothing” and “Stuffed and Starved” — stated that agricultural chemical poisoning kills 1 million people each year and sickens millions more.
The United Nations Environment Programme cited a report on its website saying that the estimated costs of pesticide poisoning in sub-Saharan Africa now exceeds the total annual overseas development aid given to the region for basic health services, excluding HIV/AIDS.
Conventional farmers are also at risk of adverse neurological symptoms — such as headache, dizziness, depression, limb weakness, poor balance, difficulty concentrating and vision difficulties — according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Food and agriculture experts can argue forever about whether or not organic agriculture is more sustainable and environmentally friendly than conventional. The argument usually centers around whether the two farming methods differ in carbon footprints. But here’s what we do know: Organic farming uses natural manure and compost to enrich the earth and build healthy soil. And this method leaves the soil in much better shape — said Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, in a New York Times discussion — which is good since we’re going to need it to continue living off of it.
David Pimentel, an emeritus professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, explained to Life’s Little Mysteries that plants need nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to grow. These minerals are added to the soil in chemical form each season, and each season, Pimentel said, excess fertilizers leach into the water.
He added: "The runoff of unutilized synthetic nitrogen fertilizer from conventional agriculture into both ground and surface waters and the atmosphere — where, as nitric oxides, it contributes to global climate change as a greenhouse gas — is a major problem in the U.S. and elsewhere," Pimentel stated.
According to Livestrong, organic agriculture is, overall, the least harmful to the environment. “It removes synthetic chemicals from the air, soil and water; produces healthier foods that improve our health; may pump less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; and requires less energy.” The site added, however, that for organic agriculture to be as sustainable as possible, we need to consume less meat — which has a significantly higher carbon footprint than produce.
USDA-certified organic foods cannot contain synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or antibiotics; their production cannot involved genetic engineering, irradiation or sewage sludge; all organically produced animals must be given 100% organic feed, which does not contain any animal byproducts or growth hormones; all organically produced animals must have access to the outdoors; and the product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. It’s true that organic products can be produced unsustainably, but usually organic farming falls into the category of sustainable agriculture.
It tastes better!
OK, so there hasn’t been any substantial evidence proving this. But we’ll never stop believing it — do your own taste test of a conventional tomato from the grocery versus a locally grown, organic tomato and prove us wrong!
“But organic food production isn’t efficient enough …”
A popular criticism of organic agriculture is that it yields significantly fewer crops and would never be able to feed our overpopulated world. However, an increasing amount of data is indicating this isn’t true. Patel — from the NYT discussion — stated that it’s possible for certain types of organic agriculture to actually outperform conventional methods, “with lower input costs and a smaller carbon footprint.”
A long-term study published in the journal Bioscience in 2005 reported that it was possible to grow corn and soybean crops over 22 years without any pesticides and still achieve equivalent yields to those of a conventional farm — all while using 30% less fossil fuel energy.
Not a black-and-white issue
Like most things in life, it’s probably good to have a nice balance of conventional and organic foods. We don’t know about you, but we can’t afford to buy all organic foods— they tend to cost 10% to 100% more than their conventional counterparts — but it’s good to aim for organic options when you can if you’re concerned about the pesticide risk and believe (like we do) that it’s the more environmentally friendly choice overall.
The Environmental Working Group composed a list called the Dirty Dozen of the 12 most pesticide-heavy produce that you should buy organic (if you can’t afford to or aren’t interested in buying everything organic), as well as the Clean 15 — a list of the cleanest conventional produce that isn’t necessary to buy organic if you’re concerned about pesticides.
Go to your local farmers market. The food is usually organic — and it’s cheaper than food from the grocery since you’re cutting out the middleman. As Eating Well pointed out, even buying conventional produce locally is beneficial. “Nutrient values in produce peak at prime ripeness, just after harvest,” Eating Well explained. “As a general rule, the less produce has to travel, the fresher and more nutrient-rich it remains.”
Tell us: Why do you (or why do you not) buy organic?