A recent Stanford University study caused a big flurry when it concluded that organically-grown food is not necessarily more nutritious than factory-farmed, though organic had fewer pesticides.
Many criticized the study because it was based on a questionable evaluation of previous studies and for its very narrow concept of “nutritious”as just about nutrients rather than the overall health value of a food. Wouldn’t it be more nutritious in the long term to get your nutrients from vegetables without synthetic poisons rather than chemically- laced produce? Wouldn’t pesticide-free food be better for the health of the environment, which, of course, ultimately impacts the health of everyone? Some pundits, however, reacted to the news with glee, declaring, aha, just as they’d always thought: organics is just an elitist fad and that, if we’re really serious about feeding the world’s hungry, we must use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetically-modified crops and other big Agra “advanced” industrial methods of food production.
We find this latter view insulting and ill informed. Here’s one informed response from Marion Nestle, professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, author of Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics and blogger at FoodPolitics.com:
Questions about organic food raise three issues: productivity, benefits and costs. Productivity is easy. Since the early 1980s, careful productivity studies conclude that organic yields are only slightly lower than conventional yields, and organic production leaves soils in much better shape – boding well for future productivity. The yield difference is too small to have much of an effect on world food supplies.
Next, benefits. If crops are grown without pesticides, they won’t contaminate soil and water, foods will contain fewer pesticides, and people who eat organic foods will have lower levels in their bodies. The Stanford study and others confirm all this. Critics of organics say: “So what. Pesticides are safe.” They point out that nobody has ever died from eating industrially produced broccoli. Although science does not presently demonstrate long-term harm from eating pesticide-treated vegetables, pesticides are demonstrably harmful to farm workers and to “nontarget” wildlife, and they accumulate in soils for ages. If pesticides were all that benign, the government wouldn’t need to regulate them, but it does.
The Stanford study made a big deal about nutrients, but nutrients are not the point. The point of organic production is its effects on the health of people and the planet. The investigators did not examine the overall health impact of organics, no doubt because such studies are difficult to conduct and interpret. For one thing, people who buy organics tend to be better educated and wealthier – characteristics that track with good health anyway.
That leaves the cost question. Organics cost more because they require greater amounts of hand labor. Are they worth it? Personally, I prefer not to be a guinea pig in a long-term pesticide experiment. I’m also fortunate to have the choice.
We should be doing all we can to give everyone else the same choice.
Source: New York Times
Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce by Kenneth Chang
Is Organic Worth the Expense? discussion in NY Times
Return of the Organic Fable by Roger Cohen
That Flawed Stanford Study by Mark Bittman
Parsing of Data Led to Mixed Messages on Organic Foods Value by Kenneth Chang