Farmers and health groups point out that organic's major selling point is avoiding pesticides and, in the case of meat and dairy, hormones.
A Stanford University review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in September reported that organic and conventional produce carry the exact same nutritional value. Lead author Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler and colleagues examined 237 studies that compared the nutrient and contaminant levels in organic and non-organic fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, poultry, eggs and milk and found there was no difference in the amount of vitamins. The only nutrient difference was slightly more phosphorus in the organic products—and organic milk and chicken may contain more omega-3 fatty acids.
“Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” Dr. Smith-Spangler, a professor at Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, said. “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.”
But according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA)‘s 2011 Attitudes and Beliefs Study, reducing exposure to pesticides and avoiding antibiotics in the food supply are the top reasons consumers choose organic—and Stanford’s study confirms that organic foods have far fewer pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Stanford’s review “confirmed that consuming organic foods reduces consumers’ exposure to pesticide residues and to bacteria-resistant antibiotics,” the OTA, which represents more than 6,500 organic businesses across 49 states, stated in an issued response.
The California researchers reported that more than one-third of conventional produce had detectable pesticide residues, compared to 7% of organic produce samples; and organic chicken and pork was found to be 33% less likely to carry bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics than conventionally produced meat. However, a detailed critique of the study released last week by Chuck Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, argues that while Stanford admitted organic has less pesticide residues in their review, their comparative calculations were presented in an inaccurate and misleading manner to the public. When Benbrook recalculated Stanford’s data, he found “an overall 81% lower risk or incidence of one or more pesticide residues in the organic samples compared to the conventional samples.”
“Consumers seeking to minimize their exposure to pesticide residues will find that foods bearing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic label are the gold standard,” says Christine Bushway, CEO of the OTA. “For the most part, [consumers are] not buying organic because of some nutrient density claim. They’re buying organic for the things that they’re avoiding: pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. The whole idea of looking at organic from a nutritionally advantageous position—that’s never been organic’s claim to fame, frankly.”
Organic farmers agree, stating their practice has always been based on a healthier planet and a sustainable food system rather than increased nutrition. “I don’t know if we’ve ever advocated that organic food is healthier for you,” said Bill Duesing, an organic farmer and executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Connecticut. “It’s not the main reason we’re doing it…organic is really working with nature, conventional agriculture is working against nature.” Organic farming also provides a system that avoids nitrogen runoff—a major global threat to waterways, Duesing added.
In addition to the organic industry, additional critics of the Stanford review have been questioning whether the university’s acceptance of millions in donations from non-organic food giant Cargill may have influenced the report. According to Cargill’s website: “Cargill has a 25-year partnership with Stanford University and is currently partnering with the university on the Food Security and the Environment (FSE) program. The program includes research, teaching and outreach that helps promote environmentally sustainable agricultural practices and generates innovative solutions to the persistent problems of hunger.”
Extensive research conducted within Stanford’s FSE program has focused on implementing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), prohibited in the organic market, to enhance agricultural “productivity effects.” Cargill, a world leader in GMO-containing food distribution, has contributed over $200,000 to try to defeat Proposition 37 in California, which seeks to mandate clear labeling of GMO foods and is up for vote on November 6. A recent poll indicates that nearly 70% of Americans support GMO labeling and 53% say they would choose non-GMO brands when given a clear choice.
“We fully expect that when given a choice, consumers will choose organic or non-GMO products,” said Mark A. Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, a sustainable and organic agriculture advocacy group. “And the industrial food lobby is fully cognizant of this—that’s why they’re fighting like hell against this grassroots effort.”