A Critical Look at the Latest Organic Headlines

July 31, 2009

grocery_basketWith all the shots being taken at organics lately, this week’s headline proclaiming “Organic food not healthier” probably wasn’t a surprise for sustainability-minded eaters. (Tough economic times have many Americans looking for ways to spend less in the short term, so it’s an opportune time for agribusiness to step in and seal the deal.) The coverage — which, in some cases, leapt to conclusions beyond those drawn by the study — prompted an outpouring of passionate, articulate testimony about the many-faceted value of organic food.

The research in question is a survey of many studies, encompassing the last 50 years. It was commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), an independent government body in the UK, and, as the headlines imply, it concluded that organic and conventional food have around the same nutritional content.

Many, like food politics expert and author Marion Nestle, were outraged by the narrow focus of the research in question. “These authors did not compare amounts of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, irradiation, genetic modification, or sewage sludge,” she wrote on Thursday. “This is an example of nutritionism in action: looking at foods as if their nutrient content is all that matters — not production methods, not effects on the environment, and not even taste.”

The Organic Center (TOC) gave a point-by-point response, showing that the study had “downplayed positive findings in favor of organic food.” When the scientists at TOC reviewed the same literature just last year, their results differed greatly.

organic labelTimothy LaSalle of the Rodale Institute also pointed out that, despite the media angle, the FSA study does show organics as having more beta-carotene and flavonoids, as well as more protein, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium — all of which, he says, “are required to foster complete nutrition.”

Perhaps more importantly, LaSalle mentions what’s missing from organic food. In one recent (April 2009) survey he points to, organics are said to have fewer heavy metals, less pesticide residues and less of several other toxic compounds. And although there is very little research being done about the health benefits of food free of these substances, it is worth noting that pesticide exposure has been linked to birth defects, male infertility and nervous system disorders. Home pesticide use has also recently been tied to cancer in children.

As Paula Crossfield of Civil Eats wrote in the Huffington Post, the results of the study may have also been skewed by the fact that the nutrient content of all our food has been going down over time (and a number of the earlier studies in the survey examined crops that are no longer grown at all). Crossfield also pointed to the fact that a number of the individuals in the FSA have at one point been employed in some branch of agribusiness, including Arla Foods (a big European dairy), Sarah Lee Corporation, and the UK grocery giant Sainsbury’s. “Therefore,” she concludes, “it is not hard to assume that the perspective may lean towards what is best for agribusiness interests.”

One expert from the Soil Association chimed in with an eye toward the years ahead, years she worries could be significantly worse if organics don’t become the norm. “Our future will be dominated by climate change.” she wrote. “Here organic farming is leading the way…For our own health and the health of the planet, organic food and farming will play a big part in a sustainable future.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

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