Nutritional Value of Organic Food Really Isn't the Point

There has been a fair amount of hoohah about a Stanford Study that suggests that organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional foods.  This shouldn't be a shock, but many health claims have been waved about over the years that say otherwise.  The Atlantic's Brian Fung rightly points out that only over the last few years has the discussion shifted to imply that nutritional content is why we grow organic - in fact, that's not how the organic movement started.  The reality is that such claims are hard to evaluate - what varieties are you comparing?  Is this industrial or small scale organic?  But in a way, I don't think it matters much.

Buying organic is also a statement about public health. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of antibiotics. Conventional farms have been putting the stuff in animal feed for decades -- even though we've known since the 1970s about the health hazards that the animal use of antibiotics poses for humans. Reducing society's chances of inadvertently creating a superbug is a good reason to purchase organic foods.

There are the more immediate health benefits of buying organic: you'll avoid the chemicals, preservatives, and hormones that conventional farms often use to treat their foods. In the Stanford study, just 7 percent of organic foods were found to have traces of pesticides, compared to 38 percent of conventionally-farmed produce. Again, that doesn't mean organic foods will supercharge your health -- you'll just be at less risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances, for whatever that's worth to you. Quantifying that benefit is a contentious area and certainly worthy of more research.

And then there's the reason many people find most compelling of all: the health of workers in the field. For some consumers, buying organic is a human-rights issue. Reading Atlantic contributor Barry Estabrook'sTomatoland on the ruinous health problems of tomato planters and pickers in Florida because of the use of herbicides and pesticides is enough to make almost anyone choose organic over non-organic. Yes, there are safety rules in place for the use of these lethal chemicals, but as Estabrook's work and the the work of others shows, those rules are frequently not followed.

The reality is that organics started because of concern about the larger environment, not to make your food extra nutritious.   Yes, reducing our personal individual exposure to whatever and getting maximum nutrition out of our food is a good thing, but I tend to be troubled by the idea that our primary focus should be on protecting ourselves and our immediate families, rather than everyone - we ultimately all need to be invested in our collective health.  So the farmworkers and their children are as critical beneficiaries as our own kids.

There's another side to this, however.  To move beyond the middle class, what we really need is an agriculture that isn't saturated in fossil fuels.  As I've written about many times, the oil-food connection has gotten tighter and tighter (for example, while other areas have gotten less fossil fuel intensive, the fossil fuel intensity of agriculture has doubled in the last 20 years) between biofuels and globalized food production - meaning that everyone's access to food is tied to global energy prices.  For the two billion poorest people in the world, that's a disaster.  For the rest of us it means we never know how much of our budget to allot to dinner - and that's why so many people in the US can't put dinner on the table reliably without the help of food subsidies.

Not all organic is less energy intensive - industrial organic often actually uses more fossil fuels.  In the end, small scale, sustainable, mostly organic may be the only way we can avoid starving the world as the oil-food connection draws tighter and tighter and chokes us.



More like this

The question of whether organic food is more nutritious or not compared to conventionally grown food may be being confounded by different varieties of the various vegetables being grown. Some of the seed catalogs I receive offer varieties they claim have more of certain vitamins in them than other varieties of the same vegetable. If researchers assessing nutritional claims don't specify the varieties being tested or mix a bunch of different varieties together to test for levels of nutrients, and if organic and conventional farmers are perhaps growing different varieties with different levels of the same nutrients, then nutrient testing isn't really assessing the effect of growing conventionally versus organically because the different-variety variable isn't being controlled.

That said (and I think it's an important point; you can't know what you are learning if you aren't controlling a potentially important variable), I agree with you that we are growing and eating organically for the many different reasons you cited that have to do with overall health and well-being issues for everyone and everything. If it turns out that either due to varietal choice or growing methods or some combination that organic food is more nutritious, that's another good reason to grow and eat it, since eating more nutritious foods would presumably reduce illness and thus medical costs and increase well-being.

I think we have to be careful about making the assumption that organic means X. My understanding is that organic produce farming only limits the types of fertilizers and pesticides that can be used, not the use of them in general.

That means that, in theory, a fertilizer or pesticide that is worse for people or the environment could be used and still be considered organic.

I bring this up not because I am in support of any particular type of farming but because we, as consumers, are creating a belief that organic means more than it is and as long as we fail to recognize how open the "organic" label really is, manufacturers will continue to let us believe things that may be untrue. And as more and more of us willingly pay for the organic label, bigger and bigger conglomerations will do everything they can to profit from it. The degree of residue from pesticides today is not necessarily an indicator of what you'll find tomorrow since the organic label requires no such limitation.

I am all for reducing the use of hormones and antibiotics as routine treatment for all livestock and I'm against using petrochemicals when we are already depleting our resources, but buying an "organic" piece of produce from across the country instead of a conventionally grown piece of produce somewhere closer to home, may actually be a wash, environmentally. There's more to picking your food than a reassuring label.

There is also another reason for buying organic, which you lightly touch upon in re: fossil fuels. I buy organic for all the reasons you cite, but I also do so to support sustainable agricultural practices. I am lucky to live in a city with at least half a dozen farmers markets, at least two of them pretty large, so buying organic also means that I support my local farmers, ranchers and fishermen (I'm in Austin, we get seafood up from the Gulf).

I agree completely with Marnie. So much of commercially grown organic food is just greenwashing.

Personally, I don't follow the USDA organic "standard" at my home -- I think many safe products are excluded and many not-so-safe products are falsely labelled as okay under the standard.

i was disappointed that the Stanford study relied solely on published reports, and did not emphasize who did their funding.

I was also disappointed that they didn't stratify their "organic" data into levels, from individual, backyard practices to full-on USDA Organic compliant commercial operations (using procedures and chemicals written and endorsed by industrial chemical giant, Monsanto)..

Although the organic movement may have started as a purely environmental movement, individuals have been touting the nutrition trope since the early 70s.

By peicurmudgeon (not verified) on 07 Sep 2012 #permalink

@marnie - could you please give examples of "a fertilizer or pesticide that is worse for people or the environment could be used and still be considered organic."?

Well, I'm not sure about USDA rules, but if they're anything like the standards over here in Europe, the classic example would be allowing the use of broad-spectrum, persistent treatments based on copper sulphate whilst banning more modern equivalents which are more specific and break down more readily.

I have made a meta-study of meta-studies.

The outcome? Half of all meta-studies are crap- half aren't.

Isn't that astonishing? :-)

oh, and, incidentally- nothing in the meta-study statistics will tell you which is which.

Sharon from your point of view you are right.

Whether "organic" food is a]in any way better isn't the point.
That CO2 rise isn't doing any harm isn't the point about the CO2 scare.
TYhat nuclear isn't dangerous, indeed is by orders of magnitude, the safer isn't the point.
That acid rain isn't harmful, indeed is good for the environment isn't the point.
That peak oil (for any of the miriad of dates promised) is a lie is not the point.
That shale gas is perfectly safe and the Gasland film a deliberate fraud isn't the point.
That sea levels aren't rising and net ice is actually growing isn't the point.
That CFCs do no harm isn't the point.
That polar bear numbers are increasing isn't the point.
That the hundreds of millions dying from starvation promised was a lie isn't the point.
That every single catastrophje prediction across the entire "environmental" movement was a lie isn't the point.
Because concern for the environment itself isn't the point of the "environmental movement" at all - it is simply a flag to fly.

The point is that they are Luddites who are scared of human progress, because they think they aren't up to understanding it, and will tell absolutely any lie to scare people and hopefully get the government to give them a privileged position or pay them Danegeld as well.

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 21 Sep 2012 #permalink