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

Personal Health

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.

The health impacts on those workers were serious and included “diverse alterations of the digestive, neurological, respiratory, circulatory, dermatological, renal, and reproductive system.” The researchers concluded: “there exist health hazards for those farm workers exposed to pesticides, at organic and cellular levels.”

There are shelves’ worth of studies documenting the health dangers of pesticide exposure. A study published last year found that prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides – which are often sprayed on crops and in urban areas to control insects – can lower children’s IQ. A follow-up investigation into prenatal pesticide exposure concluded that boys’ developing brains appear to be more vulnerable than girls’ brains. A study by Colorado State University epidemiologist Lori Cragin found that women who drink water containing low levels of the herbicide atrazine are more likely to have low estrogen levels and irregular menstrual cycles; about three-quarters of all US corn fields are treated with atrazine annually. British scientists who examined the health effects of fungicides sprayed on fruits and vegetable crops discovered that 30 out of 37 chemicals studied altered males’ hormone production.

I think you get the point: many synthetic herbicides and pesticides are dangerous to humans and should be avoided. And the best way to avoid putting those chemicals into our surroundings is to buy organically grown foods.

Yes, the health benefit to you might be modest. But the health benefits to farming communities, farm workers, their children, and their unborn children can be huge. Reason enough, I think, to look for the organic label.

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