Tag Archives: organic food

On the Latest “Organics Are No Better for You” Story…

Notice any headlines this week that looked like this?:

Since news of the study broke, a lot of excellent commentary has already been published about it and the way much mainstream media chose to spin it. So rather than sound like a broken record, here’s a sample of key points, followed by an article I received via email from the Cornucopia Institute.

  • Sarah Pinneo: “Media Coverage of Stanford’s Organic Foods Study Is Half Baked” (HuffPo)

    Informed buyers of organic aren’t expecting to get more vitamin C from their strawberries. It’s what’s not in the strawberries that makes organic better: toxic pesticides. And it’s what’s not running off the fields and into the water supply. And it’s what’s not poisoning the people who work in those fields, and the honeybees who pollinate them…
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  • Tom Philpott: “5 Ways the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short” (Mother Jones)

    In reality,…the study in some places makes a strong case for organic — though you’d barely know it from the language the authors use. And in places where it finds organic wanting, key information gets left out. To assess the state of science on organic food and its health benefits, the authors performed what’s known among academics as a “meta-analysis”—they gathered all the research papers they could find on the topic dating back decades, eliminated ones that didn’t meet their criteria for scientific rigor, and summarized the results.

    In another post I’ll get to the question of nutritional benefits — the idea, expressed by the Stanford authors, that organic and conventional foods are roughly equivalent in terms of vitamins and other nutrients. What I want to discuss now is the problem of pesticide exposure, and why I think the Stanford researchers are underestimating the risks…
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  • Michael Pollan: Interview with KQED News (KQED)

    I think we’re kind of erecting a straw man and then knocking it down, the straw man being that the whole point of organic food is that it’s more nutritious. The whole point of organic food is that it’s more environmentally sustainable. That’s the stronger and easier case to make.

    * * *

    It depends on your values. If you’re concerned about nutritional value and taste, you might find that the local food, which is more likely to have been picked when it was ripe, is better. Because any food that’s traveled a few days to get to you or been refrigerated for a long time is going to have diminished nutritional value. That argues for fresh being more important than organic.

    But if you’re concerned about pesticides – let’s say you’re pregnant or have young kids you’re feeding – than you might choose organic, because it will have on balance fewer pesticide residues. You may also be concerned with the welfare of the people picking and the farmers growing your produce, or you may be concerned about soil health – that would argue for organic too…
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Thinking Outside the Processed Foods Box — Health and Safety Advantages of Organic Food

By Mark A. Kastel
Senior Farm Policy Analyst
The Cornucopia Institute

I have enjoyed a virtually exclusive organic diet for the past 30 years. But I was deeply unsettled by a September 4 New York Times article and a similar Associated Press story casting doubt on the value of an organic diet.

In terms of the extra cost and value of eating organically, I have always subscribed to the adage “pay now or pay later.” While my personal experience does not provide much in terms of a scientifically legitimate sample size, in the last 30 years, after suffering from pesticide poisoning prompted my shift to an organic diet, I have exceeded my insurance deductible only once, due to an orthopedic injury. And my doctor keeps telling me how remarkable it is that I, at age 57, have no chronic health problems and take no pharmaceuticals.

Unfortunately, the analysis done by Stanford University physicians in the articles noted above did not look “outside the box” as many organic farming and food advocates do.

They discounted many of the studies, including by the USDA, that show our conventional food supply’s nutritional content has dropped precipitously over the last 50 years. This has been attributed to the declining health of our farms’ soil, and healthy soil leads to healthy food. Organic farming’s core value is building soil fertility.

Furthermore, there are many externalities that impart risk on us as individuals and as a society, which the physicians failed to look at. For example, eating organic food protects us all from exposure to agrichemicals contaminating our water and air.

Additionally, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become ubiquitous in processed food with an estimated 80%-90% contaminated with patented genes by Monsanto and other biotechnology corporations. The use of GMOs is prohibited in organics.

Interestingly, there have been virtually no long-term studies on human health impacts of ingesting GMOs, although many laboratory animal and livestock studies have led to disturbing conclusions. The best way to operate using the “precautionary principle,” as European regulators mandate, is to eat a certified organic diet.

Current research now indicates that some of Monsanto’s genes are passing through the placenta into human fetuses and into the bloodstreams of adults and children. Organics is a way to prevent your children from becoming human lab rats testing genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or a myriad of other novel life forms.

Stanford researchers, cited in the recent press accounts, dismissed statistically significant differences between agrichemical (pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, etc.) contamination in conventional and organic food.

The researchers might trust the FDA to set ” safe levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in the food we serve our families but many parents have decided to set a lower threshold close zero as possible. even doctors at stanford confirm demonstrably pesticide contamination organic food.

In supporting this cautious approach, there is a growing body of scientific literature that suggests it’s not just the gross level of toxic contamination that pesticides present but rather minute amounts of these toxins can act as endocrine disruptors, or mimickers, sometimes triggering catastrophic and lifelong abnormalities in fetuses and developing children.

Is it worth experimenting with the health of future generations when we know that there is a demonstrated safe alternative—organic food?

To illustrate the difference, researchers at the University of Washington published a paper in Environmental Health Perspectives that documented a tremendous drop in organophosphate pesticide contamination, in the urine of children, after just three days on an organic diet. This is hard science that did sway the Stanford investigation’s conclusion.

Scientists have also recognized that we must take into consideration the disproportionate quantities of food that children consume relative to their body weight, especially of certain fruits and vegetables that have been found to be highly contaminated with synthetic chemicals. Furthermore, their study failed to look at the cumulative effects of contamination in many different food items in one’s diet. Again, children, for developmental reasons, are especially at risk.

Both the New York Times and AP stories did touch on a number of advantages, like lower levels of contamination from antibiotic-resistant pathogens. But that was also dismissed by stating that these could be ” killed during cooking. however we know that inadequate cooking does take place and cross-contamination can easily occur in residential kitchens. so again I pose the question how many potentially lethal antibiotic-resistant organisms do you want to bring into your home?

Although there is conflicting science on whether or not organic food is truly nutritionally superior, there is no doubt that in terms of many parameters, organic food is demonstrably safer.

I will stick with the diet that concentrates on fresh, local, more flavorful food that’s produced without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and genetically modified organisms. And I for one think I’m getting a good value for my own health, while at the same time supporting good environmental stewardship and economic justice for family farmers.

Also see “5 Reasons We Should Continue to Eat Organic Produce” (Mother Nature Network)

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What We Eat & the Quality of What We Eat

A CDC report earlier this year showed just how little produce Americans eat. Now the National Fruit & Vegetable Alliance (NFVA) has released a report which offers a perhaps even drearier view of American eating habits.

The NFVA is an alliance led by the CDC and the Produce for Better Health Foundation that aims to improve public health through increased fruit and vegetable consumption. Its “Report Card” evaluates, among other things, progress made by schools, restaurants, supermarkets, and federal and state governments in its 2010 National Action Plan (NAP).

Among their findings?

  • 6% of Americans eat the recommended amount of vegetables on an average day. (Translation: 94% of us don’t eat enough veg.)
  • 8% eat the recommended amount of fruit on an average day. (Translation: 92% of us don’t.)

They also found that while food eaten away from home makes up about a third of the average American’s daily intake (measured in calories), it accounts for just 11% of their produce consumption.

In our post on the CDC survey, we offered a number of suggestions for getting more fresh produce into your diet, as good bodily health is crucial to good dental and oral health. And certainly, the type of food you eat has the biggest impact. A diet based on whole foods, including whole grains and plenty of produce, is healthier than one based on heavily, industrially processed foods – the kinds of foods you find in the center aisles of the grocery store or at fast food joints and other chain restaurants. The former contain more of the good stuff – vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, enzymes and important phytonutrients – and less of the bad stuff: artificial flavors and other additives, preservatives, excess sugar and salt, and unhealthy fats.

But the quality of the food you eat matters, as well. In general, organic is better for you (not to mention tastier) than industrial – that is, food that comes from factory farms. This isn’t necessarily because organic food is more nutritious, as some have hypothesized – the science on this so far appears to be very mixed – but more because of what it lacks: pesticides, herbicides and other chemical additives that can damage or interfere with our health (not to mention that of the planet).

As it has become more popular and more mainstream stores have begun to carry organic produce and meats, we’ve also seen the rise of what amount to organic factory farms. They use the same techniques as conventional farming, only replacing chemical pesticides and herbicides with less toxic alternatives, or find loopholes that let them cut corners without losing their organic certification. As Dave Thier wrote last month in an AOL News article,

Fred Kirschenmann, a North Dakota farmer and distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, served on the National Organic Standards Board when it was establishing the standards for the USDA organic seal.

Early on, Kirschenmann argued that an organic farm shouldn’t be able to “degrade the health of the soil.” But when the board gave that to USDA lawyers, they told it to change the language. Any regulation, the lawyers said, needed to be able to be answered with a simple yes or no – something that can be difficult in the complex world of organic agriculture.

The confusion extends to livestock as well. For instance, organic cows and chickens were required to have “access to pasture.” For some that meant having free-range animals that got the bulk of their food from the outdoors. For others, it meant having a tiny door at one end of a gigantic henhouse.

What the organic laws boiled down to were a list of inputs that an organic farm could and could not use. That led to many farmers getting their certification by practicing what some call “substitution agriculture” – changing the kinds of chemicals they added to the soil without changing the way that they farmed.

“You have organic farmers that don’t really use what would traditionally be used, what good organic practices would classify as good agro-ecological systems” Kirschenmann told AOL News. “They’re just using natural inputs instead of synthetic inputs.”

This, of course, is something that conscientious organic farmers don’t want, for such practices could easily taint the whole industry – and, according to Thier, they want tougher standards, which may in fact be forthcoming.

Proponents of tighter organic standards, however, agree that President Barack Obama’s undersecretary of agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, and the USDA have been working to clarify some of that flexible language. Last year, they changed the “access to pasture” phrase to say that cows must be allowed to graze 120 days a year. And at a series of hearings in Madison, Wis., recently, producers, distributors, processors and consumers told the National Organic Standards Board what they thought was missing from the current certification standards.

For [Mark] Kastel [of the Cornucopia Institute] and others trying to establish a more exclusive organic seal, the hearings were a success: They declared that nanotechnology would not be allowed in organic products and that conventional hops would not be allowed in organic beer. In the contentious egg issue, he said that the board seemed receptive to farmers and consumers asking for stricter requirements for certified organic eggs.

We certainly hope things will continue in this direction, so we can be more sure of the quality of the food we eat – that when we choose organic, we’re getting what we pay for: chemical-free food raised in ecologically sustainable ways.


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