My head exploded a tiny bit when I read the New York Times yesterday. One of the most-emailed stories of the day, on a new Stanford University study, ran under the headline: "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce."
The research, a meta-analysis of 237 studies, concluded that organic food, in general, is not more nutritious than conventionally grown food. Nor is it (in most cases) statistically less likely to contain bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses.
Um, excuse me? That's like reviewing Toyota's new Prius and complaining that it doesn't fly.
The raison d'etre for organic food is not nutrition. The usually stated "advantages" -- and the reason many folks are willing to pay a little extra for them -- are that organic produce contains less pesticide residue (which the study confirmed), and that organic livestock isn't shot up with unnecessary antibiotics (see "You Want Superbugs With That?"). On the latter point, the study found that organic poultry and pork contain fewer drug-resistant bacteria than their non-organic conterparts.
Even so, the Times articles states: "The researchers found no obvious health advantages of organic meats." Really? Seems to me the study indicates that organic meat and produce are delivering exactly what they promise, and, in some cases, a bit more. So why the misleading and negative spin?
My frustration isn’t with the study itself. What concerns me is a creeping cultural bias against organic food, which I believe colored the Times's reporting on this study, as well as another article earlier this year that examined the impact large agricultural companies and food producers have on setting organic standards.
The message these days seems to be that "organic" is a meaningless term, co-opted by big corporations.
The term "organic," used in the context of food production, means grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. End of story. Don't get it mixed up with all of the other myriad concerns about our food supply. If you don't want to support Big Ag, buy locally grown food. If you don't want to eat processed foods -- don't. If you are concerned about the nutritional value of your veggies, there are other factors to consider besides organic. Ripeness, for example (the Stanford study confirms that ripe produce contains more nutrients -- so buying farmstand peaches is a better nutritional bet than bringing home those hard ones from the grocery store).
But if, like me, you want your kids to eat fewer organophosphates (linked to ADHD in children, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics 2010 study) or less atrazine (lethal to humans at doses of less than 1/1000 of an ounce), organic is often the best choice.
While burying the lede, the Times was careful to note that the pesticide levels found in conventional produce are regularly well below the EPA’s thresholds for exposure. Call me cynical, but as a concerned parent, I wonder about those thresholds (and the politics behind them). Are they calibrated for small bodies? Do we have a deep enough understanding of the long-term effects of those pesticides? DDT was an agricultural miracle ... until it started killing off falcons and songbirds. I’m willing to err on the side of caution here, especially considering the poor track record federal agencies have on protecting our health and food supply.
Indeed, there was another story in the Times yesterday that pretty much makes that case for me. It dealt with the FDA's anemic oversight of antibiotic use in livestock, which, as stated before, is another argument in favor of going organic whenever possible.
And if that doesn't work for you, there's always the big picture. After all, a planet with less fertilizer polluting our waterways and fewer chemicals sprayed in the air seems pretty nutritious to me.
Image: Mary E