Organic is Better for Health: 2012 Stanford Study
In a study published in the Sept. 4, 2012 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers at Stanford University Medical School examined four decades of research comparing the nutritional content of organic and conventionally grown foods. The study found that:
"pubished literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods."
Mainstream media picked up the story and ran with the idea that organic food, which tends to be more expensive, is no better for you than conventionally grown food -- a bit of a leap both for the study and for the media. What most stories missed was a further conclusion from the study:
"Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria."
That is the real health benefit of organic food (although those of us who grow and consume food grown in soil managed organically will argue that our soil's ability to supply micronutrients and minerals far outstrips the capacity of chemically treated, nutrient-depleted soil). Pesticides are proven endocrine disruptors --chemicals that mimic or block the actions of hormones in our bodies. In the March 14, 2012 Endocrine Reviews, researchers reported that "epidemiological studies show that environmental exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals are associated with human diseases and disabilities." The research cites studies that link disease and BPA, found in polycarbonate plastic, canned foods and paper receipts, and atrazine, used in large volumes on corn. The March 16, 2012 Beyond Pesticides Daily News Blog about the research explains that endocrine disruptors can be toxic to humans even in minutely small doses.
Some of the stories fueling the debate:
Is organic produce worth the price?
ABC news catches both of the study's conclusions: "Is it worth it? Maybe not. Researchers at Stanford University found there's practically no nutritional difference between organically and non-organically grown produce. But here's the catch, if you consider pesticides, there's a big difference."
Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce The NY Times went for the vitamin angle:
"Does an organic strawberry contain more vitamin C than a conventional one? Stanford University scientists weighed in on the “maybe not” side...concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli."
Study finds organic food is no better on vitamins, nutrients
The Organic Fable
Fox: "Stanford University doctors dug through reams of research to find out -- and concluded there's little evidence that going organic is much healthier, citing only a few differences involving pesticides and antibiotics. Eating organic fruits and vegetables can lower exposure to pesticides, including for children -- but the amount measured from conventionally grown produce was within safety limits, the researchers reported Monday. Nor did the organic foods prove more nutritious."
In a NY Times op-ed piece, Roger Cohen says he's had it with "organic," calling it "an effective form of premium branding rather than a science, a slogan rather than better nutrition...." He cheered when he read the Stanford study, adding that, "the takeaway from the study could be summed up in two words: Organic, schmorganic."
Some stories you can share to back up the case for organics with facts:
Proof Positive - The Stanford Nutritional Analysis - Missing the Point(s)
The Organic Broadcaster Newspaper, Joe Pedretti breaksdown the Stanford Study providing a condensed synopsis of the various flaws, downplayed findings and incorrect conclusions of the Stanford meta-analysis.
Docs Say Choose Organic Food To Reduce Kids' Exposure To Pesticides
NPR's The Salt article by Nancy Schute summarizes a report released by American Academy of Pediatrics. "For the first time, the nation's pediatricians are wading into the controversy over whether organic food is better for you – and they're coming down on the side of parents who say it is, at least in part."
New York Times: A Simple Fix for Farming
Mark Bittman says the recent Marsden Farm study by Iowa State University shows, "Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use -- if it wants to." This is the study that showed that a four-year rotation that integrated livestock and manure fertilizer outperformed conventional corn-soybean-chemical rotation and didn't reduce profits. Bittman adds, "In short, there was only upside — and no downside at all — associated with the longer rotations."
Sun-Argus: MOSES responds to media hoopla of Stanford Study
MOSES Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti explains the issues with the Stanford study, giving specifics on how organic farming produces safer food without harming the environment. Joe points out that the study found 10% of all conventional foods contain 8 or more pesticide levels. He cautions, "We know very little about the synergistic side effects of numerous pesticides."
Huffington Post: Stanford Scientists Shockingly Reckless on Health Risk And Organics
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, critiques the reporting by authors of Stanford study. Noting how many phrases in the report can be misinterpreted and misleading, Lappe states, "Simple prudence should have prevented these scientists from using 'evidence' not designed to capture what they wanted to know." She also points out research and studies that are missing from the study which are critical to the subject.
Getting to the Right Question on the Nutrient Benefits of Organic Food
Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council,
questions why the media was so quick to pick up the Stanford study when it's "not exactly trail-blazing stuff." He was surprised the study saw any toxic residue on organic crops, adding "that can only mean that the toxins from conventional fields migrated by air, rain or water table to organic fields, and who knows where else.Why didn’t that set off media alarm bells?" He also asks, "Since the Stanford team is asking whether organic costs more when it doesn’t deliver more nutrients, why doesn’t the team also ask the flip side of the question—whether conventional gets to charge less because the toxic load is passed on to everyone?"
Pesticide Use Rises as Herbicide-resistant Weeds Undermine Performance of Major GE Crops, New WSU Study Shows
Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook finds that the use of herbicides in the production of three genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops — cotton, soybeans and corn — has actually increased.
Organic Farming for Health & Prosperity
The Organic Farming Research Foundation
says the Stanford study points out the need for more research on organics. The OFRF has responded by launching the first science-based, peer-reviewed report Organic Farming for Health & Prosperity. "This comprehensive report extols the multiple societal benefits of organic farming in North America."
What the study forgot to mention: Organic food can save the world from devastating climate change
Ethan Huff writes in the Natural News about Sarvadaman Patel, an organic farmer from India, who says converting to organic was the best decision he ever made. Patel eloquently sums up the advantages of organic farming: fewer pesticides, fewer natural resources used, and less waste and pollution.
Stanford Study Flawed
Jim Riddle, Organic Outreach Coordinator,
University of Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center, adds his voice to the debate, saying, "The headline could just have easily read, 'Despite billions spent on research and subsidies, conventional foods found more dangerous than organic.'”
He cites documented research throughout his response, adding, "the Stanford team did not account for synergistic effects of multiple pesticide residues commonly found in nonorganic foods, even though USDA pesticide detection data confirms that nonorganic foods consistently are contaminated with multiple pesticides, whereas organic food are often free of pesticide residues. When residues occur in organic foods, they are typically for one compound, rather than multiple compounds."
Stanford Organics Study Misses the Point
Lisa J. Bunin, Ph.D., Organic Policy Coordinator, Center for Food Safety, says the study "misjudges the critical importance of the farming systems used to produce" organic food. " It’s not the nutritional features that distinguish organic from conventional food that are most relevant; it’s the safer, healthier growing practices that define the organics sector that deserve focus. Safer and healthier for the environment, farmworkers and wildlife. Safer and healthier for human consumption."
Organic Research Forum
Actually… Organic Foods ARE Healthier for You (and everything else living on the planet)
Dr. Brian Baker, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland, posted his response to the Stanford study, saying "The results found in Smith-Spangler are not consistent with other recent reviews performed. Researchers led by Kirsten Brandt at the University of Newcastle went over many of the same studies and reached a different conclusion (Brandt, 2011). Brandt’s performed a meta-analysis of the published comparisons of secondary metabolites and vitamins in organically and conventionally produced fruits and vegetables. Secondary metabolites, such as anthocyanins, tocopherols and bioflavonoid were found to be consistently higher in organically grown fruits and vegetables by a significant margin. The Brandt analysis also found vitamins to be higher, although not with as much significance as the secondary metabolites."
Equal Exchange-Minnesota co-owner Rodney North shares his well-thought-out response in this blog. He offers a broader look at the meaning of "health" and organic farming. He includes links to several research studies, too. He writes, "Unfortunately many will not read past the often misleading headlines that suggest, or outright declare, that organic foods are not healthier for you than ‘conventional’ foods (meaning those foods grown with the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, GMOs and – for livestock – with artificial growth hormones, antibiotics, etc.). We believe that a careful reading of the study does confirm that for many foods there is a demonstrable health benefit in eating organic, either directly because the organic foods can be more nutritious, or indirectly by reducing one’s exposure to chemical residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria."
University, writes about the flawed statistics in the study. "the team does not tap extensive, high quality date from the USDA and EPA on pesticide residue levels, toxicity and dietary risk....The team's answer to the basic question, 'Is organic food more nutritious or safer?," is based on their judgment of whether published studies provide evidence of a clinically significant impact or improvement in health. Very few studies are conducted in a way tat could isolate the impact of a switch to organic food from the many other facors that influence a given individual's health....The findings of this study are ripe for overstatement and misinterpretation." Also see The Devil in the Details.
The case for organic food
An LA Times editorial says "Stanford's research showing that organic produce probably isn't any more nutritious than the conventional variety is mostly remarkable for what it omitted" -- an examination of processed foods. "You can't get a realistic picture of health effects by looking at fruits, veggies and meats but none of the processed items that make up the bulk of the American diet."
Stanford research confirms health benefits driving consumers to organic
The Organic Trade Association takes the stance that the research actually supports the reasons consumers cite for why they buy organic: "Organic foods have lower pesticide residues, lower chance for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These are among the top reasons consumers cite for choosing to buy organic products."
Organic Food More Nutritious? Yet Another Study Fuels Irrelevant Debate
The Fooducate Blog points out that the Stanford study is not new research but a review of previously published studies to find and analyze trends. "The data sets used encompassed a wide variety of foods – from fruits, to vegetables, to dairy and meat. Each original study had different conclusions. In some cases organic was shown to be more nutritious, in others – less. The overall AVERAGE was about the same.
But nutrient levels are not the main selling point of organic food. Most people turn to organic for other reasons: Personal health reasons – no pesticides, antibiotics, or industrial ingredients added. Amplify this when parents are buying for young children. Some see it as an insurance policy.
Green reasons – more sustainable, better paid farmers and workers, more socially responsible companies, more compassionate animal husbandry.
Oh, and in many cases, the organic product simply tastes MUCH BETTER than its conventional counterpart."
5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short
Tom Philpott writes for Mother Jones: "the study in some places makes a strong case for organic—though you'd barely know it from the language the authors use. And in places where it finds organic wanting, key information gets left out." He adds "By their method, if 5 percent of organic vegetables contain at least one pesticide trace and 35 percent of conventional vegetables contain at least one trace, then the 'risk difference' is 30 percent (35 minus 5). But that's a silly way of thinking about it, because there's a much greater difference between those numbers than "30 percent" suggests."
Don't give up on organic food, our experts urge
Consumer Reports says the "study has serious limitations,"
and "consumers shouldn't be misled into believing that there isn't a benefit to paying more for organics." Their advice: " It's worth it to buy organic versions of the foods that are likely to have the highest levels of pesticides when grown conventionally, as well as organic poultry and milk, to reduce exposure to antibiotics. Those choices are especially important for pregnant women and children."
A Lesson in Reading Beyond the Headline
Amy Salberg, The Real Food Lawyer, writes on her blog, "RealFoodLaw," "...despite use of 'health' in the headline, the report dealt only with the 'nutritional' differences between organically-grown and conventionally-grown food – and THAT, only on the very short term. It did not consider the other advantages to organic food, as acknowledged by its author: 'Dr. Bravata agreed that people bought organic food for a variety of reasons — concerns about the effects of pesticides on young children, the environmental impact of large-scale conventional farming and the potential public health threat if antibiotic-resistant bacterial genes jumped to human pathogens. 'Those are perfectly valid,' she said.'
....In the final analysis, after we get WAY past the headlines, this whole thing is really much ado about absolutely nothing. By admission of the study’s own authors, nothing was found."
Milk of Human Kindness (video)
NY Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof visits his friend Bob Bansen's farm to show how this dairy farmer's switch to organic is a good business decision. Kristof writes about his visit in the Op-Ed piece Where Cows Are Happy and Food Is Healthy: "Family farms can still thrive, while caring for animals and producing safe and healthy food.
For Bob, a crucial step came when he switched to organic production eight years ago. A Stanford study has cast doubt on whether organic food is more nutritious, but it affirms that organic food does contain fewer pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Bob’s big worry in switching to organic production was whether cows would stay healthy without routine use of antibiotics because pharmaceutical salesmen were always pushing them as essential. Indeed, about 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to farm animals — leading to the risk of more antibiotic-resistant microbes, which already cause infections that kill some 100,000 Americans annually.
Bob nervously began to experiment by withholding antibiotics. To his astonishment, the cows didn’t get infections; on the contrary, their health improved."
More Choice, and More Confusion, in Quest for Healthy Eating
New York Times reporter Kim Severson writes about the confusion media coverage of the Stanford study has created: "For countless shoppers, the study just added to the stress of figuring out what to eat....For the crowd that spends weekends at the farmers’ market and knows that Humboldt Fog is a type of cheese, the study was, at best, misunderstood and misinterpreted and, at worst, an indication of a conspiracy driven by large-scale, conventional agriculture."