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Hi, I'm Malcolm Woods

I’m the New Media Editor at Outpost, though I’m the old media editor, as well. In both capacities, I read, hear, photograph and write about food. I also eat food pretty regularly, all of which means I spend a lot of time thinking about food in...
Malcolm Woods

Plenty of Reasons to Stick With Organic

Food, Love and Policy By Malcolm Woods on September 5, 2012


Give up organic?


I’m sure some people will think about that today, after hearing about a new study that found little evidence that organic food is any better for you than conventional food. Apple for apple and zucchini for zucchini, organic is often more expensive, after all.  No doubt, some folk will opt for cheaper conventional, but I’m betting the booming growth in the organic industry will continue.


I’ll explain why in a moment, but first let me review this latest study making the news today. It’s actually a meta-analysis, a study which examined previous studies rather than asking anything new or generating any new data.


Researchers at Stanford University conducted the most thorough review yet of a couple hundred earlier studies regarding organic foods. They examined 17 human studies and 223 studies of the nutrient and contaminant levels in organic versus conventional foods, asking the key question: does organic food offer a health benefit?


What they found, said the researchers, was very little evidence that eating organic food was any healthier; that, for example, there was no definitive proof an organic strawberry contains any more nutrients than a conventionally grown one. Organically raised beef? Again, no definitive proof it offers a nutritional advantage.


Sure, conventionally grown fruits and veggies more frequently contain pesticide residue, but the authors note, the amounts are considered safe by federal regulators. So, why buy organic?


Here are just a few reason, for starters:


1) Those pesky pesticides. While federal regulators say the amounts found on conventionally grown produce are safe, we simply haven’t any done any studies on the long term effects of consuming them. Sure the chemical dust found on that pint of conventional blueberries might fall well under danger levels, but what about eating 30 year’s worth? We really don’t know. But if you want to steer clear and minimize your exposure to the chemicals in the meantime, organic is the way to go.


2) Organics are GMO free. Genetically modified foods (GMOs) are more and more common in our food supply, though we are in the dark completely about how such GMOs might behave in our bodies and about the long-term impact of GMOs on the environment and on our health.  As has been noted recently, even processed foods labeled “natural” may contain GMOs. If you want to avoid GMOs when you shop for food, your very best choice is to eat organic foods. Organic laws prohibit GMO content.


3) The health of farm workers. The trace amounts of pesticide residue left on produce is quite minor compared to the exposure farm workers can receive, year after year.


4) The health of the soil and nearby environment. Organic agriculture has obvious benefits to the ecosystem and promotes biodiversity. It also means there is no dangerous chemical run off to pollute waterways.


5) Some organics do seem more nutritious. Organic milk, for example, has been found to contain more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk (perhaps due to the diet of organically-raised dairy cattle). A long-term study, now in its tenth year, also found that organically grown tomatoes had much higher levels of some antioxidants than conventionally-grown ones. Since so few long-term studies have been completed yet, we just don’t know conclusively what damages can be done by a lifelong exposure to those chemicals – nor do we know what long-term gains can be found in the nutritional profile of food grown organically, in living, healthy soil, over decades of farming.


Thing is, this issue is incredibly complex. It is nearly impossible to look at human beings and place the cause of a disease, illness or even good health on any one thing. We eat such a variety of foods and we’re exposed to such a huge stew of environmental contaminants that it’s beyond our current technology to find a single culprit. It’s likely, too, that illnesses and other health problems are a result of a combination of factors. Which is why reducing exposure to chemicals known to be bad for our health seems like a good idea to me.


I also like the premise of organic agriculture, of rotating crops and nurturing a living soil. Organic agriculture’s resurgence (after all, at one point, all agriculture was organic) began in the last century first and foremost as an environmental movement, to protect the Earth.


Many more studies will be done, no doubt. It is such a complex issue. Here are a few links to stories about this study:


Organic Food Isn't More Nutritious but That Isn't the Point

Stanford Research Confirms Health Benefits Driving Consumers to Organic


NPR: Why Organic May Not be Healthier for You 


Thinking Outside the Processed Foods Box - Health & Safety Advantages of Organic Food



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