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Organic food study "missed the point"

Heather Pilatic's picture
Heather Pilatic
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Organic Farm standThis week’s controversy surrounding a Stanford study claiming to have established that organic food is no more nutritious than non-organic illustrates the pitfalls of talking about food issues in a consumer frame. And people all around the country are saying so.

Food issues are never solely or even mainly about individual consumer choice — our food and farming system connects us with each other and is by most measures our most impactful daily interaction with the environment.

Food is, for instance, the largest single-sector contributor to climate change, and industrial agriculture consumes 70% of the earth’s freshwater supplies. Food is at the center of human culture, and always has been. More to the point, food is unavoidably political and we are increasingly understanding ourselves as food citizens much moreso than consumers.

Accordingly, from the Los Angeles Times to the Des Moines Register people are responding to the Stanford study with some variation of “so what?” or “you’ve missed the point.”

The point is...

People choose and afford organic when they can for a variety of reasons, a good many of them having to do with not wanting pesticides to be used on their food or in their name.

Pesticide residues on food in unknown combinations can have real health impacts — especially at critical life junctures like pregnancy, early childhood or when we are older, or sick. Pesticides are driving biodiversity loss and play a key role in the decline of pollinators.

Pesticide use in the fields puts farmers, and especially farmworkers and their families on the frontlines in ways that are profoundly unjust. Farmworkers face so many risks and get so much sicker than just about any other workforce, that they are largely exempt from our nation’s labor laws.

Pesticide use on food is, in other words, about so much more than the consumer benefits of organic. Yet media insistently seek to frame organic as a consumer issue (and as the folks at the Framework Institute note, we in the food advocate world too often play into this). As a result, we get a distracting and ideologically charged “debate” that misses the mark every time.

What the data really say

For the academic at heart (myself included), Dr. Chuck Benbrook of the Organic Center wrote a full technical review of the Stanford study, noting a variety of methodological flaws like undercounting and the failure to meaningfully define terms. Key among the flaws is a misleading math trick which allows the study to depict the increased risk of exposure to pesticide residues on food at around 30%. In fact, the data show “an overall 81% lower risk or incidence of one or more pesticide residues in the organic samples compared to the conventional samples.”

Taking the study on in its own terms (i.e. the individual consumer benefits of organic), Benbrook’s corrections boil down to this:

From my read of the same literature, the most significant, proven benefits of organic food and farming are:

1. a reduction in chemical-driven, epigenetic changes during fetal and childhood development, especially from pre-natal exposures to endocrine disrupting pesticides;

2. the markedly more healthy balance of omega-6 and -3 fatty acids in organic dairy products and meat; and

3. the virtual elimination of agriculture’s significant and ongoing contribution to the pool of antibiotic-resistant bacteria currently posing increasing threats to the treatment of human infectious disease.

So, fewer sick kids, better good fats and a better shot at having antibiotics that actually work. And so much more.

Learn More» To get into the nitty-gritty of comparing organic and conventional foods in terms of which residue combinations are found on which foods in what amounts, see our database, website and iPhone app.

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ProfessorRich wrote:

The obvious shortcomings of this study cannot be ignored. For one, nearly all of the studies cited are flawed. For example, examining the foods for protein was conducted by measuring the amount of nitrogen in the foods. This does not test for usable protein and chemically grown foods have nitrogen compounds that are not usable protein, but compounds such as nitrosamines, nitrites and non-chelated compounds – some of which are carcinogenic. Commercial foods are grown with just the basic nutrients for plant growth, which amounts to ten elements. However, human elemental needs are at least 30 elements, which organic foods have. Studies have should that there is more vitamins C and A, fiber, usable protein, and chelated minerals, and lower sodium in organic foods. And so on, but other aspects between the two food production methods are often overlooked.
Approximately 2.5 billion tons of pesticides are used worldwide and cost more than $20 billion each year. About 600,000 tons of more than 600 different pesticides are used annually in the United States at a cost of more than $5 billion. Needless to say, this industry alone is a powerful influence on our government and daily lives, as is the manufacture of chemical fertilizers Yet, the price tag is much greater.
For one, the raw materials that go into the manufacture of pesticides have to come from somewhere. There has to be extensive areas which are mined for the materials. This also requires heavy metal machinery, explosives, factories and fuel. When we contemplate this it is obvious that mountains of raw materials are needed each year, and along with them the wilderness that once graced the areas. It is a more energy intensive practice, contributing to climate change as well. This effect, compounded by the manufacture of chemical fertilizers, is obviously not a sustainable practice.
About 35% of the foods purchased by consumers in the US have detectable levels of pesticides. Moreover, 1% to 3% of the foods have levels above the legal tolerance level. Even worse, the methods used detect only about one third of the more than 600 pesticides used. The National Residue Program tests only 41 of those more than 600 pesticides and does so on a very limited basis of spot checks.
Some people think that pesticides are absolutely needed to control pests, but this is not so. For example, insecticide use between 1945 and 1989 increased ten-fold in the US, but crop losses from insect damage increased from 7% to 13%. The pesticides very often destroy natural predators, and thereby, loss of natural controls ensues. Pests often become resistant to pesticides, and without the natural control the results can be devastating. More than, 504 insect and mite species, 150 plant pathogens, and 273 weed species are now resistant to pesticides.
Some of us also think that there are no negative human health effects, except with large doses. Yet, a World Health Organization and United Nations Environmental Programme report estimates that one million human pesticide poisonings occur each year, with about 20,000 deaths resulting. Long-term exposure to pesticides has not been studied, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer found "sufficient" evidence that 18 pesticides are carcinogenic, and another 16 pesticides have "limited" carcinogenicity. Certain pesticides, such as organophosphates, have long term and irreversible effects. It is well documented that organophosphates cause delayed polyneuropathy, which includes irreversible neurological changes. Other effects include defects on memory, mood (even depression), and abstraction. And this is just one type of pesticide, though a commonly used one. These and other health problems are a public issue, because everyone is exposed to pesticides in water and the atmosphere, and likely at their favorite restaurant.
Meanwhile, the worst of conventional agriculture is soil erosion. And, soil erosion may well be the world’s most serious environmental problem. Lost topsoil reduces organic matter, fine clays, water-holding capacity, plant rooting depth, productivity, and crop yields. In the US alone at least 6.5 billion tons of topsoil is eroded each year. At least a half ton of soil is lost each year for every man, woman and child! Meanwhile, all countries are contributing to the erosion of the soil, and many more so than the US. In 40 years all of the topsoil will be lost, exposing the denser, less fertile subsoil (argillic horizons) with chemical agriculture. The entire problem can be summed-up by recognizing that it takes 500 to 1,000 years to develop a mere one inch of topsoil, empires have collapsed throughout history partly due to erosion, and recently, since 1914, more topsoil has been lost than in all of previous history!
As bad as the loss of topsoil may be, it is a quiet crisis, one not widely perceived. Unlike natural disasters, this human made disaster is unfolding gradually. It is not widely recognized because of the intensification of cropping patterns and the plowing of marginal land that leads to excessive erosion over the long run can lead to production gains in the present, thereby creating the illusion of progress and a false sense of food security.
It is quite ridiculous for us to continue with such a devastating practice as world hunger and populations grow. Organically grow foods are more important than nutrition and avoiding pesticides, and should be on every one’s table around the world.


RobinOC wrote:

You can bet there is money behind this report. Who donates to Stanford? I would seriously question the science as well as the motives of this study. The first thing cancer patients need to do is to detox themselves, and this includes avoiding any and all pesticides. Pesticides also can act as endocrine disrupters which probably contributes to the rising rates of cancer in this country. There is much more at stake here than simple chemical nutrition anyway.


donlouis wrote:

My local paper for Santa Cruz, CA, the Sentinel, carried the Stanford study article. I replied with this too brief letter.

Not surprisingly, organic and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are equally nutritious. But are they are equally safe? Consider facts about pesticide residues.
Many pesticides are known to damage health. Residues on five popular fruits can contain 10 carcinogens, 30 hormone disruptors, 15 neurotoxins, and 10 reproductive toxins. Are the amounts of residues on conventional produce really “within safety limits”? EPA’s original “safe dose” for the herbicide Atrazine in drinking water was 3 ppb; it was later dropped to 0.1 ppb; EPA’s original “safe dose” for the insecticide Methoxychlor was 5 mg/kg/day; it was later lowered to 0.02 mg/kg/day. It should not be surprising that ingesting 62 pesticides on peaches is likely to be harmful, even if each pesticide by itself is not. Scientists have demonstrated the power of multiple pesticides.
For more information see the author’s book, “How to be Healthy in a Toxic World,” from Amazon.