Organic produce has always been thought of as definitively better for your health than conventionally raised crops because of their lack of exposure to chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Now, there’s been a controversy in “River City” ever since a recent Stanford University study came out a few months ago saying, in effect, it ain’t necessarily so. Now, before I go any further, I want to point out that I’m only the messenger here, and in fact I’ve been leery of wandering too far into this minefield until now. I wrote a piece on this subject a few months ago and tested the waters. No hate mail or death threats so far. I’ll go so far as to even reveal my own bias in favor of organics being better for you. That being said, lots more out there have weighed in on this topic, and I’ve taken the effort of sampling some of what they had to say. First up is Howard Yune who writes in the NapaValleyRegister.Com and gets the locals to weigh in on the topic of pesticide avoidance.
Is Organic Produce Better For Your Health: Recent Study Implies Not That Much
A recent survey by Stanford University researchers of 240 studies of organically raised produce, meat and dairy products has raised eyebrows — and some hackles — by its conclusion that foods produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizer have little or no nutritional edge over conventionally raised food.
But a week after the report’s release, many vendors and customers at the Napa Farmers Market dismissed that conclusion as beside the point.
Amid a cornucopia of melons, peppers, eggplants and other farm goods outside the Oxbow Public Market, many of those doing their grocery shopping Tuesday morning called their confidence in natural and locally based farming unshaken.
“I definitely think there not may be more nutritional value, but you’re not poisoning yourself,” said Whitney Shaw, a San Francisco resident visiting the Napa market who said about 85 percent of her food purchases are of organic products.
The report, led and co-written by Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler of the Stanford Center for Health Policy and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was not an original study but instead surveyed 240 existing studies on the health benefits of organic foods.
Smith-Spangler reported the studies showed no special benefits in nutrient content for foods raised without man-made fertilizers and pesticides. The study indicated organic produced was 30 percent less likely to contain detectable levels of pesticide residue, but added most conventionally grown fruits and vegetables remained below federal limits for such substances.
But some customers at the Napa market declared the nutritional value of organic produce is the least of its benefits, compared to the avoidance of chemicals — reflecting media criticisms of the report since its release Sept. 4.
“I think we understood that, but the pesticides are the important point,” said Sandra Koo, a recent transplant from Seattle to Napa while perusing the stalls at the farmers market. “An apple’s an apple, true, but how it’s raised is important. I think it tastes better too.”
Chris Peterson of the Corvallis Gazette-Times weighed in pretty heavily in favor of — wait for it — organic produce. He has his own reasons. Something to do with the dirt and how it’s grown. Why would that matter? Not addressed in the study by Stanford, so probably not important.
You’ve probably heard about the Stanford University study concluding that organically grown food does not appear to be any more nutritious than conventionally grown food.
The study was a four-year meta-analysis of 237 narrower studies, which raised more questions than it answered. It prompted consumers to re-examine their values concerning how their food is grown.
Frankly, after reading the inconclusive preliminaries, I don’t see why it warranted such press. Stanford paid for this study, but who funded the ones this research relied on? Then questions about one researcher’s suspect connections and university funding from nonorganic food and ag companies called it all into question. Big surprise.
As with elections, fact-checking is advised.
This whole dust-up only strengthened my resolve to buy from local farmers. Don’t just “hug your farmer,” as the bumper sticker commands, talk to her. Ask questions. Most who sell directly to consumers are happy to describe their farming practices.
Soil health is the key to nutrients in food. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can’t make up for depleted, lifeless soil. You know that just from repotting houseplants. Healthful food comes from healthy soil.
Now, when you can get someone who works for a major university to say something, well, that’s saying something. Mike Jett wrote this piece for the Courier-Journal.Com and pointed out some inherent bias in the study in terms of who paid for it, what questions got asked and what kinds of answers were sought after. This is a crucial point. The average layperson believes research is funded to find the truth. Wrong! It’s funded to get the answer that the funding agent wants to see. Truth be told, and as a former research scientist myself, everyone doing research has a set notion of what’s going to be found out from any study or experiment. You have to. It’s your thesis. Truth gets discovered when you get an answer you didn’t expect. Taking a bunch of previously completed research studies (as was the case for the study here) and amalgamating them together into what’s called a meta-analysis gives a result, but it’s out of context with what the original studies were designed to show. I left the links in the excerpt so you could these out directly for yourself.
There was much to-do last week over the media headline ‘Stanford Study Finds Little Evidence of Health Benefits of Organic Foods.’ This headline sparked discussion nationwide and speculation that the term ‘organic’ is over-hyped and merely a method of charging more money for basically the same foods. (For a link to a summary of the study, click here. Curiously, I could not find a link to the actual study…..)
As usual, the media report was misguided on many levels. First, with so many media outlets these days, organizations are forced to ‘sensationalize’ headlines to grab attention, often distorting or embellishing the facts to make a splash. A very recent example of this is the headline: ‘No Yolk: eating the whole egg as dangerous as smoking?’ This came out a month or so ago and claimed that eating eggs is equally as damaging to the body as smoking. Seriously? Yes, that is what was reported. For a breakdown of this headline/study, visit Dr. Peter Swanz’s website , where he discusses the flaws in the study.
Second, it is very common for large corporations to fund studies. As a university employee I can tell you that research costs money, and funding has to be secured from an external source. Large corporations are very eager to fund studies that support their own agendas. One can imagine that this particular Stanford study may have been funded by a multi-national conventional produce provider. We cannot know for certain, however, because it was claimed that the funding source for this study is ‘unknown.’ Again, as a university employee, I can share that we document EVERYTHING, and every single thing we do has to be approved by multiple people. So, to state that something is unknown is completely absurd.
The controversy over organic produce versus commercial rages on. I certainly suspect that there are powerful money interests in favor of commercial methods because of the enormous profit potential. The organic produce camp is swayed by the knowledge that local and sustainable and pesticide free is the only way that we as a species can survive in the long run. Unfortunately, no monied benefactors are waiting in the wings to fund a counter study to substantiate their position. On the other hand, there are those who take the viewpoint that the way we grow our food is destined to change out of necessity in order to feed and provide nutrition to everyone on this planet. ElizabethMcVay Greene argues in The Huffington Post that the future of our agricultural practices are going to be unconventional in nature. That the best way to produce vegetable and fruit crops that have the highest nutrient content and are most desirable to consume are at present only grown locally.
This organic nonsense has to stop. I’d like to politely request that those who don’t know agriculture cease writing about it as though they do, stoking an already divisive debate that misses the heart of the problem we face: We’re not sure how we should be growing food, and thus we’re not sure how to eat.
Anyone who suggests that a crop can be raised without the provision of nutrients and pest management should not opine on agriculture. Roger Cohen, I’m talking to you.
Saturday’s opinion piece in the New York Times, “The Organic Fable,” shows me just how far off course the discussion of agricultural production has gotten, because it spreads misinformation and focuses squarely on the wrong problem. If we continue to debate organic versus conventional, continue to view food choices as an emblem of class, and continue to use the nine billion future people of the world as a gauntlet that the human race must run, we are in trouble because the question is not first about production. It’s about distribution.
We produce enough to feed 1.3 billion more people than we actually do. And that’s in American proportions. In 2000, the USDA reported that Americans consumed almost 2,000 pounds of food per person per year. Meanwhile, 1.3 billion tons of global food production goes to waste each year. Production by any method, standard or label is not our most pressing problem.
Whether you favor organic produce or conventionally grown, the argument about which is better for you may be increasingly moot in the future with availability for all becoming the new focus for concern. I agree that the highest nutritional value is while it’s still attached to the soil it sprang from. Once harvested, it’s a race to the bottom as far as nutritional content is concerned. An organic apple that traveled 3000 miles and was on the tree 2 weeks ago is never as good as one just picked. True, there are fewer pesticide residues in it versus one from the factory orchard in, say, New Zealand. Is one better nutritionally than another at that point is anyone’s guess. The Stanford study simply measured what it could, but the truly important measurements may not be, in the end, measurable at all. Good nutrition for all without too many harmful extras is best.
What do you think of this? Is it important to you what you eat and where it comes from? Leave a comment below and please share this with those friends and others close to you who care about this subject. Click the share button and spread these ideas to others.