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Debunking organics: Not in Seattle's backyard

Washington agriculture experts say Stanford got it wrong with their recent study discrediting the benefits of organic food.
Washington State University Professor John Reganold

Washington State University Professor John Reganold Washington State University


A Stanford study finding little evidence of health benefits from organic foods provoked international attention last week, prompting dozens of reports in U.S. and international publications. On NPR, the study attracted coverage on both flagship shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered

In Seattle though, most dedicated buyers of healthy foods seem to have shrugged. And scientists at Washington State University, home of the nation’s first organic agriculture major, have calmly pushed back at the study and some of the conclusions being drawn from it. 

The Stanford researchers conducted a review of other scientific literature to carry out a meta-analysis of what the overall research on organic foods and health might show. In their study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, they came to two basic conclusions: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

According to Washington State University Regents Professor John Reganold, a leader in scientifically studying organics and farming, there have actually been a dozen such nutrition meta-analysis studies since 2000, with nine finding evidence in favor of organics and three, including Stanford’s, finding little to no evidence. 

As a well-nuanced New York Times report on the Stanford study noted rather pointedly, the Stanford study actually overlooked one of those nine — a highly regarded study Reganold led. It found markedly higher nutrition levels for organically grown strawberries — including for Vitamin C and antioxidants – and healthier soils on the organic strawberry farms.

Still, Reganold praised the study for provoking discussion. but also pointing to a widely circulated response by one of his colleagues, research Professor Chuck Benbrook, who took careful but restrained issue with many aspects of the Stanford study.

Others were less charitable. The headline on a Huffington Post commentary by Frances Moore Lappe called the work "shockingly reckless," which wasn't too far beyond the strong critique from Lappe, whose work has helped guide the city of Seattle's official thinking on food issues.

A Stanford news writer attributed the big reaction to two factors: “Many people have strong feelings about organic foods, and I suspect many more – reporters included – want to know if buying organic is worth their money.”

Stanford clearly did its part to gain attention for the study. The Stanford press office and the researchers provided good quotes for making the story a rather easy media takedown of anyone’s assumptions of wide-ranging health benefits from organics. In Stanford’s own press release, one of the study authors said, “Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious. We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.” The study author spoke of organics being a “ripe area” for meta-analysis.

In fact, as many shoppers who follow organics closely realize, the science has really only begun to develop evidence on any nutritional differences between organically and conventionally produced foods. That said, the scientific evidence, including the Stanford study, is clear on organic foods having less pesticide residues.

Trudy Bialic, public affairs director for PCC Natural Markets in the Seattle area, said in an email, “I’ve not had one call, not one email. I think one of our nine store directors had one question from a customer. So the response from organic shoppers, pretty much zip, they expect attacks on organic and they also are aware of the research showing benefits.”

Experts generally agree that consumers in all income categories base their organic shopping decisions on a variety of factors. Many of these were noted by the Stanford researchers in their interviews, including health risks, whether the food is for children or adults, benefits to the environment, the treatment of animals, and, in many cases, the knowledge that pesticide residues are heavy on some specific types of produce and minimal on others, even with conventional farming.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 7:30 a.m. Inappropriate

It would be nice to have heard from someone in this article who doesn't have an axe to grind.

rorric1

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 10:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting debate. It sounds like the Stanford meta-analysis takes a more skeptical view of data which others have interpreted to show that organic produce is significantly healthier. I've been buying mostly organic since the early '90s, and the Stanford study isn't going to change my habits, which I picked up by working on an organic farm and seeing (and tasting) the difference for myself. I think organic agriculture makes more sense in a lot of ways: it avoids the hazards of exposing farmworkers and consumers to pesticides, it's more sustainable over the long term--industrial agriculture is turning vast areas of the nation's arable soil into pancake-hard dead dirt. It's hard to imagine that food grown on good, living soil wouldn't have more nutrients than food grown on depleted soil, but even if that were true I'd still think it's worthwhile to invest in sustainable agriculture.

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 10:12 a.m. Inappropriate

The organic fruits and vegetables from our garden simply taste better, last longer and do not contain any pesticide or herbicide residue. The produce we buy must meet the same standards. The rabbits that visit our garden agree.

Mike Waller

MAW

Posted Tue, Sep 11, 4:43 p.m. Inappropriate

People are not very logical when it comes to risk. What is rarely pointed out is that if one is on a limited budget or for reasons of frugality limits ones spending on food and has to choose between organic fruit and vegetables at 3x the price of conventional (I am in N. Seattle and am comparing Rising Sun fruit barn prices to PCC) then the health benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables overwhelms the small and often overstated risks of pesticide residues.

For those who can afford it and like local small farm produce because it is fresh and offers variety but would be happy to tolerate responsible pesticide use because it increases yield and thus feeds more people, it is many locations increasingly difficult to even find conventionally grown local produce because it is more profitable for small farmers to grow organic.

Posted Thu, Sep 13, 10:16 p.m. Inappropriate

The public smugness of people who can afford organic or "sustainably-grown" produce, or have the land to grow it themselves, isn't helpful at a time when many people find it difficult to buy any produce whatsoever for their children.

sarah90

Posted Sat, Sep 15, 4:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Are we still debating pesticides?

http://pestreg.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/whs/pdf/hs1648.pdf
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1647114/

It's your choice to eat them. I think I'll take a pass.

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