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Whoa, Is Organic Food No Healthier Than Non-Organic? Controversy Erupts Over Study

Here's an important thing to remember: Our food choices don't just affect us, but entire communities.

I had barely drank my first cup of coffee when I heard the news yesterday morning on  NPR – organic food, it turns out, may not be that much healthier for you than industrial food.

The NPR story was based on a new study published in the  Annals of Internal Medicine  which concluded, based on a review of existing studies, that there is no “strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” The study, written by researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine, also found that eating organic foods “may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

The interwebs were soon full of headlines talking down the benefits of organic foods. “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce,” the  NY Times  announced, as reporter Kenneth Chang pointed out that pesticide residues on industrially grown fruits and vegetables are “almost always under the allowed safety limits.” CBS news, running the AP story on the Stanford study, informed readers: “Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests.”

Organic agriculture advocates were quick with their rebuttals. The  Environmental Working Group put out a press release playing up the researchers’ findings that organic produce has less pesticide residue. Charles Benbrook, a professor of agriculture at Washington State University and former chief scientist at  The Organic Center, wrote a detailed critique you can find  here. Benbrook noted that the Stanford study didn’t include data from the USDA and US EPA about pesticide residue levels. He also pointed out that the researchers’ definition of “significantly more nutritious” was a little squishy.

Is this the last word on the nutritional benefits of organic foods? Hardly. As Benbrook said, in the coming years improved measurement methods will hopefully allow for better comparisons of food nutritional quality. (You can find an  Earth Island Journal  cover story on this very issue  here.)

I’ll leave it to the PhDs and MDs to fight this out among themselves. As they do, I’ll keep buying (and  growing) organic foods. Why? Because even if organic foods are not demonstrably better for my health than industrial foods, I know that organics are better for the health of other people – the people who grow our nation’s food.

To his credit, NPR’s new ag reporter, Dan Charles, was careful to note that organic agriculture “can bring environmental benefit[s].” One of the most important environmental benefits organic agriculture delivers is a boost to public health and safety.

Let’s say you’re not worried about the relatively small amounts of pesticides that end up on the industrial foods at the supermarket. (Though you should read  this Tom Philpott dissection of the Stanford report when considering your risk of eating pesticide residue.) Well, you should still be concerned about the huge amounts of pesticides that end up in the air and water of farming communities – chemicals that can lead to birth defects, endocrine disruption, and neurological and respiratory problems.

When pesticides are sprayed onto farm fields, they don’t just stay in that one place. They seep into the water and waft through the air and accumulate on the shoes and clothes of farm workers. In recent years in California (the country’s top ag producer) an average of 37  pesticide drift incidents a year have made people sick. Pesticides also find their way into the homes of farm workers. A study by researchers at the University of Washington found that the  children of farm workers have higher exposure to pesticides than other children in the same community. When researchers in Mexico looked into pesticide exposure of farm workers there, they found that  20 percent of field hands “showed acute poisoning.