So a recent study by a group of researchers from Stanford University published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concludes that organic food is no better than that conventionally grown. As is often the case with the mainstream media, coverage of the study has been sensationalized and misleading. In fact, it’s almost developed into a media war between the corporate media and the public, some even accusing the media of doing a “psyop” on people. What’s the truth about organic food? Is it really never any better than conventional food, as the Stanford study (a metanalysis) suggests?

Well, the study appears to have several problems. First, Robyn O’Brien points out that the study only compared the amount of vitamins and minerals in organic vs. conventional foods, and ignores one of the central reasons people prefer organic: they don’t want to eat the pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and other types of chemicals used in conventional farming. But even on that yardstick, the Stanford study ignores that in fact, organic food often does contain more nutrients than conventional food (even if it doesn’t always, which is what the Stanford paper emphasizes), surely an important factor we’d like to consider when making our food purchasing decisions.

The Stanford authors did address the amount of pesticide exposure in organic produce vs. conventionally grown, and conclude that although there is a 30% lower risk difference in organic foods, this isn’t enough to mean anything significant. However, this is misleading; researcher Chuck Benbrook (at Washington State) points out that a better figure based on the Stanford paper’s own sources is 81% lower risk, partly because the authors didn’t distinguish between the number of different kinds of pesticide traces and their extent. Benbrook argues that with respect to pesticide residues:

a) most residues in organic food occur at much lower levels than in conventional food,
b) residues are not as likely in organic foods,
c) multiple residues in a single sample are rare in organic food but common in conventional produce, and
d) high- risk pesticides rarely appear as residues in organic food, and when they do, the levels are usually much lower than those found in conventional food (especially the levels in imported produce).
(from the Mother Jones article linked above)

While the Stanford authors would argue that these things don’t matter because the amount of pesticide residue is too low to cause any biological effects in humans, on the face of it this is a suspect claim; the amount of certain biologically important chemicals, like hormones, occur at very low concentrations in the blood but have profound biological effects. And indeed there is a fair amount of research that shows that even low amounts of some pesticides can cause problems, especially in pregnant women. If you’re pregnant or have young children, this might be information you’d like to know, I’m thinking 🙂

Furthermore, there’s a basic principle that the Stanford authors ignore, namely the Precautionary principle. Even if something hasn’t been proven to cause harm (such as there being a synergistic effect caused by a cocktail of pesticides that increases the risk of biological damage), if there’s an alternative that doesn’t carry that theoretical risk then you should prefer the alternative. Especially, it seems to me, if you’re responsible for someone else’s health, like that of your children.

Do I think organic is always better? Not necessarily, I do think Michael Pollan has some sensible advice on the issue. But what troubles me most is the conflict of interest created by the ties of the Stanford authors to corporations that have a direct financial interest in competing with organic foods, in particular Cargill (a proponent of genetically modified food crops) and Philip Morris, the tobacco giant. So I have to conclude that the Stanford paper is basically a piece of junk science, a hatchet job bought and paid for by corporations with a financial motive to make organics look bad.

Do you disagree? Am I being too harsh? I’d love to hear from you!