By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

By now you have heard about the Stanford University study which found that organically grown fruits and vegetables are not significantly better, in terms of your health, than conventionally grown produce.

Photo: Green Right Now

I cringed when I first heard these findings blurbed on the radio. I didn’t want it to be true.  I also feared that the conclusion is premature.

I wasn’t the only one cringeing. Across the country, the meta-analysis of existing major studies, published Sept. 4 in Annals of Internal Medicine, received a lot of media attention, favorable and unfavorable.

Regular people, and not a few columnists, expressed relief that the cheaper conventional food they’re already buying is “just as good” as the typically more expensive organic food. (I live this too; it’s frustrating to pay $4 for a head of organic broccoli and $6 for a pound of organic grapes.)

But environmentalists and food health experts had a different reaction. Those who have been following the organic food movement closely knew that some other studies have shown that organically grown foods retain antioxidants and Vitamin C better than their conventional counterparts; that they’re free of pesticides and that pesticides do show up in the human body, potentially causing ill effects. The outcomes aren’t conclusive but the evidence is beginning to pour in that a small amount of contamination can creep in under the body’s defenses, and disrupt the endocrine system.

These same experts have reviewed academic work that shows how organic soils nurture microbial life and become richer year after year, capable of producing nourishing foods without chemical interference. Even though a lot of the evidence is anecdotal, it’s also intuitive that rich soil will sustain food production. Look what happens when areas lose their fields to desertification or erosion? So to say organic production is sustainable is no small statement.

One immediate reaction to the Stanford study was the charge that it missed the point of buying organic, which helps reduce the chemical load on the planet, sustain farmland, and save farm workers and wildlife from pesticide exposures.

But in fairness to the Stanford researchers, lead author Dr. Dena Bravata, MD, MS, and co-investigator Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD, MS, didn’t miss the point. That wasn’t their point. They were looking at the food outcomes. They wanted to investigate the quality of conventional v. organic foods to answer their patients’ questions about whether organic was better for human health.

After reviewing 240 existing studies, the doctors concluded that it was not concluding that:  “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

Dr. Bravata, a senior affiliate at Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and the senior author of the paper, affirmed that conclusion for a Stanford Medical School story, putting it this way:

“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.”

The bottomline was clear, those pesticide residues on conventional produce were below government-set thresholds, therefore relatively safe, and on the other side of the ledger there was nothing to support the idea that organic food was nutritionally superior.

Go buy conventional, it’s safe and nutritionally virtually the same.

Except. Maybe. It’s not.

Dr. Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, has been studying this same literature the Stanford doctors reviewed and issued a pointed response to their study.

In his point by point critique of the Stanford work, Benbrook called their findings “ripe for overstatement and misinterpretation.” In a nutshell, Benbrook believes the Stanford team minimized the positive effects of eating organic by electing to define them as not “clinically significant.”

Benbrook notes that a team in Great Britain  at the Human Nutrition Research Center, Newcastle University
the United Kingdom, did a similar analysis of the existing research, but concluded that organic food was significantly, nutritionally superior:

“They found that secondary plant metabolite-­based nutrients in fruits and vegetables are 12 percent higher, on average, in organic food compared to conventionally grown food. A subset of nutrients composed of plant secondary metabolites that are involved in plant defense against pests and response to stress were, on average, 16 percent higher. This subset encompasses most of the important, plant-based antioxidants that promote good health through multiple mechanisms.”

In addition, Benbrook reported that some individual studies comparing organic and conventional foods have found major nutritional differences. One study he cites found “in the case of apples, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, milk, carrots, grains, and several other raw foods, organic farming leads to increases on the order of 10% to 30% in the levels of several nutrients, but not all. Vitamin C, antioxidants, and phenolic acids tend to be higher in organic food about 60% to 80% of the time, while vitamin A and protein is higher in conventional food 50% to 80% of the time.”

Now whether these added nutrients — if studies continue to confirm such findings — would lead humans to live a substantially improved healthier life is still a matter of debate. It’s difficult, in the absence of long-term human studies, to know the impact.

Could these differences in nutrients be enough to help a human body turn off cancer? We don’t yet know. More research needs to be done, and we’ll have to wait years for more definitive answers.

The Great Britain study calculated that the extra nutrient value of the organic food would add 17 days to the life of a woman and 25 days to the life of a man consuming an organic diet. That’s not incredibly compelling. It even sounds a little silly. Perhaps this calculation is premature as well.

In addition to the UK survey, U.S. studies of kids eating organic vs. non-organic diets show that those pesticide residues turn up in urine tests when children eat conventionally grown foods, and disappear within a few days after they’re put on organic diets. What does this mean for their long term health? Again, we don’t yet know, but Dr. Benbrook says the Stanford team should have given more weight to these well-known studies because it’s “widely accepted” that such proven exposures increase risks, even if those aren’t well understood.

Similarly, he chides the Stanford team for not including recent studies that link pre-natal exposure to organophosphate pesticides to a higher risk of autism, asthma and ADHD.

What can we conclude from this back-and-forth? That we need more information. We need longitudinal studies and carefully designed research. The Stanford researchers admitted as much, noting that some of the work they reviewed in trade publications were “not very rigorous.” (Which raises the question:Why then would they come to such a firm conclusion?)

Another question that arises, how many of the underlying studies were funded or indirectly influenced by the pesticide makers and Big Ag companies that have replaced the loss of public research money on so many campuses? The Stanford study was not funded by outside sources, but the work it relied upon may have been.

It simple seems too early to draw a verdict, to know the full value of organic food, some of which is being grown on fields that are still being recovered after years under chemical production. Returning to organic methods is a long process involving composting and crop rotations that slowly re-energize the soil. Early snapshots of the food output will likely not have the clarity we need.

The Stanford study actually acknowledges some of this, but the public will miss the nuances. Taken at its literal word, the study concluded that there’s not enough evidence to show that organic food improves one’s health “significantly”. That’s a qualified finding. But the busy public remembers mainly the headline, and probably finds it adequate proof to quit buying organic foods. And that’s terribly unfortunate.

I’m receiving this work a different way. I’ll be viewing it as preliminary and cautionary, limiting my exposure to pesticide residues and buying organic produce whenever I reasonably can.

Like many Americans, I have limited tolerance for the organic up-charge. I want affordable food and price parity. But I do believe that those pesticides trickling through our systems have consequences, even if we’re just now sorting out the details.

I sense there’s something good and synergistic going on with food that’s grown in chemical-free soils, enriched by organic materials, as nature prefers. The positives boomerang back to my family in many ways, some known, like clean water and cleaner air, and some that need more exploration.

So until we know more….I choose organic.

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