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In defense of organic food

By Deni Archer


If you watch the news you may have noticed that, from one week to the next, different scientific studies on the same topics with opposing conclusions make an appearance. This makes it difficult for any reasoning person to reach hard and fast opinions about many pressing issues. That these opposing outcomes can occur is symptomatic of a reductionist science, and the cause of the “science for sale” accusations that have been bandied around in the last few years.

This week the media jumped on the bandwagon of the Stanford University review of studies comparing the health benefits of organic food with conventional industrial food. The conclusion reached was summarised by one researcher as “There isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health”. However they did conclude that organic food is significantly less likely to contain pesticides - from our knowledge, one of the primary health reasons people choose to buy organic food.

There are numerous studies out there showing that organic food does have significantly higher nutritional value, especially for Vitamin C and antioxidants. For example, one EU funded study showed that organic fruit and vegetables contained up to 40% more antioxidants than non-organic varieties. This is only an example of scores of other similar studies, so how did the Stanford review of over 200 studies come up with their conclusion?

Naturally, immediate questions that came to mind were about how the variables within and between the studies were assessed. Different soils, climates, and environments all play a very big role in the nutrient content of resulting food. Furthermore, mass produced monoculture organic food is very different to more holistic systems such as permaculture and biodynamics. The Soil Association picked up on these points too, and found the Stanford review methodology to be flawed on this account:

The scientific methodology used for the review, while suitable for comparing trials of medicines, is not right for comparing different crops. A medicine used in Scotland is expected to behave in exactly the same way as the same medicine used in California, but potatoes grown in different climates and soils will be different.”

Apparently, studies on crop trials cannot be compared in the same way as clinical trials. Doing it in this way tends to exaggerate variations and in turn minimise the real differences. The Soil Association says that studies in the UK which use the correct analysis have found the differences in nutrient levels between organic and conventionally grown food to be “highly significant”.

Another criticism of the review points out that the study does not include a measure of additives like hormones, sweeteners, antibiotics, etc, nor processes like genetic modification or irradiation. The review does highlight, though, that organic milk is significantly healthier, while organic meat contains fewer antibiotic resistant bacteria strands - all very significant health benefits.

The study did find that organic food contains significantly lower amounts of pesticides, and we would say this is highly beneficial to health (anyone who has seen a documentary such as ‘Our daily poison’, or spoken to a converted organic farmer will attest to this). But organic food isn’t only about human health. It’s also about the natural environment and animal welfare. Conventional farming destroys biodiversity and pumps poisons into our air and waterways. This impacts on ecosystems and ecosystem services that humans rely on, and since we are inextricably interlinked with our natural environment, this impacts in peripheral ways on our health by default.

The way we see it, organic food is a better choice, hands down. The science may be confusing at times, but when you look into it at a deeper level, we don’t think there is much reason to doubt.

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by mark jonson  |   26 November 2012 10:16 AM   |   0 replies

Industrial fertilizers and pesticides used for non-organic food contain different toxic, synthetic chemicals, and residues. Organic farming is not allowed to use any chemicals, only natural methods.

Another article on why organic is better

by The Archer  |   29 October 2012 06:07 AM   |   0 replies

update - more info

by Deni Archer  |   28 September 2012 07:57 AM   |   0 replies

Naturally there have been many more critiques of the Stanford study. Some interesting points that have been made follow.

1. Charles Benbrook - formerly Executive Director, Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences says, "Very few studies [included by the Stanford review]... are designed or conducted in a way that could isolate the impact or contribution of a switch to organic food from the many other factors that influence a given individual's health.

2. The review includes no long-term studies of people consuming organic compared to chemically produced food: The studies included ranged from just two days to two years. Yet, it is well established that chemical exposure often takes decades to show up, for example, in cancer or neurological disorders.


3. Stanford's research in fact substantiates dramatic health and safety advantages in consuming organic food, including an 81% reduction in exposure to toxic and carcinogenic agrichemicals.

4. Most controversially links between Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute, which funds the researchers, and agribusiness giants such as Cargill and Monsanto, have been identified. Stanford researchers had touted their independence by stating they had not received outside financial support for their study, but failed to delineate the close ties between their internal funding sources and industrialized agriculture and biotechnology interests.


Studies need to be larger in sample size

by Txn Mama  |   07 September 2012 07:23 PM   |   0 replies

Like the PP stated, different regions have different soils etc. This is something this study did not look at.

Furthermore, this study was exceptionally small in sample size - so they really should do a study on a much larger scale. If I were to interview 10 people right now in one neighbourhood, the results will most likely be much more different than if I interviewed 1000 people from various neighbourhoods.

Further, they didn't take into account that pesticides play a major role in health. Organic foods are not allowed any pesticides by law. Many GM foods and "conventional" ways of farming use seeds that have been engineered to grow pesticide inside the plant itself, and surely you can imagine that this is not something that should be eaten.

Industrial organics & pesticides

by Lobar  |   07 September 2012 10:13 AM   |   0 replies

Thanks for the great article. While I am not a person who buys organic fruit & veg myself, I agree with the defense of organically grown food.

There are some other things I'd like to add. Studies may differ because of different ways of organic farming. I have read quite a few articles on the benefits and negatives of organic farming. One thing that may vary in countries are the organic pesticides used in farming. I cannot remember the name of the particular product, but it is an organic pesticide that is actually known to cause cancer. I'm pretty sure the EU has banned the substance, but it may be used in other countries. Generally big commercial/industrial organic farms are the ones guilty of using organic products that may be just as bad. A saying I've heard many a time is "organic does not mean better".

It might sound a critical remark against organic farming, but I don't mean it to be. It's good to know both negatives and positives, and I feel strongly the positives outweigh the negatives. Especially when it comes to the environmental impacts of organic vs. normal methods.

Well that's my two cents. Be wary of industrial/commercial organic farmers. Know where your food comes from. I'd like some biodynamically grown veggies now :)

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