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More Than Nutritious: Why Organics Are Still Healthier

Two recent studies concluded that organic food is no more nutritious than non-organic food. But the value of organics involves health on multiple levels, from that of farmers to eaters to the planet itself.

Cavanagh on Organics

Photo by Sean Dreilinger.

We have seen many outrageous studies that reinforce the worldview of giant corporate agribusiness over the years, but two in the last three months really take the cake.

Before we tell you what they are, we ask you to take 10 seconds and answer this one-question survey:

My understanding is that those who buy organic do so because:
1)  They want to avoid the pesticides used in non-organic produce.
2)  They are looking for more nutritious food.

If you are like the American University students who took this survey, you correctly selected number one. No one who answered our survey chose number two on nutrition. Indeed, the main selling point for eating organic has long been that it is healthier because of the absence of chemicals in your food. Think, for example, of Rachel Carson, who exposed to the world the horrors of pesticide exposure 50 years ago in her classic Silent Spring.

Instead of nutrition, the key arguments in favor of organics involve health on multiple levels: Organics are good for farmers, consumers, the land, and the planet.

Which brings us to two attention-grabbing studies: In early September, Stanford University researchers (publishing in the Annals of Internal Medicine) made headlines in mainstream media by claiming to have proven that organic food is no more nutritious than food grown with pesticides. On its heels, a second study—this one by the American Academy of Pediatrics—reached the same basic conclusion. Both studies were presented as harsh blows against organic farming, essentially telling parents that there was no nutrition-based reason to buy organics for their children.

But wait a minute. Let’s repeat what those students we surveyed accurately understand in terms of the pro-organics facts: The arguments in favor of organic food are not that it is more nutritious in terms of vitamins or protein or fat content and so on. The “more nutritious” claim is what is correctly used for whole grains and fruits and vegetables in general (organic or not).

Instead of nutrition, the key arguments in favor of organics involve health on multiple levels: Organics are good for farmers, consumers, the land, and the planet. Organic farmers we interviewed in the Philippines, for example, consistently stressed how their health improved once they stopped using pesticides. Consumers eat organics for long-term health reasons that weren’t taken into account by the “expert” studies. Then there’s the health of the land and the atmosphere: production of inorganic pesticides contributes to greenhouse gases.

When we read the newspaper coverage and the two studies, we were bewildered and outraged by how the central arguments in favor of organics were twisted and/or ignored. And we were curious as to who was at fault: the researchers, their PR machines, or the journalists who wrote about the study. On closer examination, all three seem culpable.

To being with, the Stanford researchers structured their research questions to lead to what could be billed as a startling finding—that organic foods are not more nutritious than non-organic foods—when of course it wasn't at all startling or truly relevant. To the extent the study does ask about pesticide use, it bean-counts such tallies as pesticide residues instead of looking at the longer-term health impact of the various pesticides. In this regard, long-term organics expert Charles Benbrook explains that the Stanford study relies on an extremely disputable methodology. Indeed, Benbrook’s careful research finds “a 94 percent reduction in health risk … from the selection of organic brands.”  

And there’s a gnawing potential conflict of interest issue with the study: We’re told that Stanford “authors received no external funding for this study,”  but shouldn’t a study connected to Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies fess up in bold letters that the Institute gets funding from corporate agribusiness?  Cargill, to be specific. Without such transparency, one can’t help but wonder how the study came to be.

As for the PR machine, the press release from Stanford played up the “not-more-nutritious” line even more than the study itself, as if the Stanford spin-handlers knew this would more likely be picked up by the mainstream press. “Little Evidence of Health Benefits from Organic Food, Stanford Study Finds,” the press release screams. But even as it acknowledges in passing that “…consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure,” the press release (like the study itself) returns to a vitamin-protein-fat-etc definition of nutrition and health and therefore downplays the fact that ultimately this research reinforces the obvious: organic food is healthier because of the absence of chemicals.

And then, the mainstream media essentially fell for this hook, line, and sinker. By and large, the media coverage parroted the press release and the attention-grabbing headlines. Granted, most reporters are overworked these days. But we shouldn't let any of these folks off the hook. 

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These may seem like two minor studies—but the intent seems to be to change not just how we think about organic food but also our purchasing. As the Stanford press release says in its opening paragraph, the next time you find yourself reaching for an organic plum in a store because you thought it “the healthier decision… new findings from Stanford University [might] cast some doubt on your thinking.” 

Huh?

Please join us—and others, including Francis Moore Lappé and Mark Bittman—in our outrage. Not letting these ludicrous studies change our voice or our purchasing is the way to ensure that Rachel Carson lives on. Buying organic is good for the long-term health of the planet and its inhabitants. So, please do reach for that organic plum.

And please do join us in making it known that we consumers cannot be fooled this easily. If you eat organics, tell your friends why you do so. Write a letter to the editor telling your local newspaper why you choose organic.

Shame on you, Stanford University researchers. And you too, American Association of Pediatrics. At a minimum, you’ve been used by corporate power.


John Cavanagh and Robin BroadJohn Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. 

Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is director of the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books and numerous articles on the global economy, and have been traveling the country and the world for their project Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.

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