Is Organic Food a Laughable Bourgeois Fad?

Stanford University
Stanford University (Photo credit: alexispz)
Recently, a famous opinion writer of the New York Times, Roger Cohen, attacked organic food twice on the basis of of a Stanford University research concluding that it has no nutritional advantage over products of traditional agriculture using pesticides and chemical additives, including hormones.

In short, organically grown food is not healthier. As Cohen put it,  it's the "romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it", it's "a fable of the pampered parts of the planet - romantic and comforting". Now he's done it again (see here), claiming he's added at least one important fact to his store of knowledge: "Hell hath no fury like an organic eater spurned".

Indeed, Roger Cohen has twice spurned organic food, fuming "organic, schmorganic" and drawing after his first attack an amazing tsunami of angry comments and blog posts. He's being accused of disinformation, of being asinine, of making the media look "out of touch with reality". (see articles below)

Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem
Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where do we really stand in this maelstrom of accusations? Much of it is clearly nonsense, and I'm afraid that Cohen who's an op-ed columnist I normally read with pleasure put his foot in it. He's focused his whole argument solely on nutritional value when that is not the point for confirmed organic eaters (disclosure: I'm one of them, I worked 25 years for FAO, the UN Ogranisation for Food and Agriculture, I've rubbed shoulders with nutritionists and agricultural experts, and I think I know a thing or two about organic agriculture).

The nutritional value of organic produce is (about) the same. Surprised? A tomato is a tomato, the vitamin C in it is (more or less) the same, full stop. The problem with modern agriculture is elsewhere: all those chemical additives that are added, from pesticides to fertilizers, from antibiotics to hormones. Any organic eater will tell you he/she is willing to spend more to have chemical-free stuff in their plate. Also, it happens to taste better (that's no small advantage in my view - I love to eat well!)

Moreover in FAO where I worked, organic agriculture was viewed as a major piece of experimental agriculture needed to arrive at a modern agriculture capable of feeding the explosively growing world population - because there's a problem with pesticides and other chemicals: after a while, they don't work, productivity goes down. So you need to reduce the use of chemicals and rely whenever possible on organic agricultural techniques. Also OGMs, long thought to be a solution (by incorporating insect-resistent genes in the plant etc), look now like they are hitting a wall: there's increasing evidence that they may have other very worrying side-effects on human health. In France, some serious research was recently done on rats fed with genetically modified maize and it showed beyond any reasonable doubt that OGM corn had devastating effects on their kidneys, that it caused tumors and was in fact cancerogenous. This of course has fueled once more the debate in Europe where OGMs have long been resisted  on the basis of the "cautionary principle" and European Union institutions are now considering banning the import and consumption of OGM plants altogether, a difficult decision considering how much of  modern agriculture economically depends on them.
English: Riesling vine in organic agriculture,...
Riesling vine in organic agriculture, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Stanford study that is causing so much debate in the US  is not new research but a meta-analysis (i.e. it pulled together data from 237 recent studies to permit a balanced overview and evaluation of the question). Actually, on closer examination its findings comfort as much organic eaters as organic haters of the Roger Cohen variety. For a NYT summary of the Stanford study conclusions, see here.

Notice something unusual? Yes, the title of the article: "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce". That, simply put, is very misleading. The study does not actually question the advantages of organic agriculture. It found that organic produce was less likely (and that's to be expected) to retain traces of pesticides; that organic pork and chicken were less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic resistent bacteria; that organic milk contained more Omega 3 acids considered beneficial for the heart. The Stanford scientists also found (in the words of the NYT article) that "38 percent of conventional produce tested in the studies contained detectable residues, compared with 7 percent for the organic produce. (Even produce grown organically can be tainted by pesticides wafting over from a neighboring field or during processing and transport.) They also noted a couple of studies that showed that children who ate organic produce had fewer pesticide traces in their urine."

Actually, as the NYT article points out,  reduction of exposure to pesticides is a major reason to move to organic food, especially for pregnant women and their young children. Last year,  three studies by scientists at Columbia University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan showed that children of pregnant women exposed to higher amounts of pesticides known as organophosphates, had on average, in elementary school, I.Q.’s several points lower than those of their peers.

It is curious that a study with such supportive conclusions for organic eaters should have been presented in this negative light - but then, we all know that good news are no news...Personally, I would like to add that the Stanford study was deficient in other respects as well:
(1) it did not take into account factors like taste;
(2) lumping together studies can lead to conclusions looking stronger than they actually are (for example, it erroneously left out a study on strawberries showing that organic ones contained more vitamin C than conventional ones);
(3) it concluded that the level of pesticide residue, while higher in conventional fruits and vegetables, was almost always under the allowed safety limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency - the implication being that it did no harm to humans.

That is an implication I would contest. It overlooks the result of eating such food overtime with the consequent accumulation of residues in our organism. Ditto for hormones.  Perhaps the Stanford scientists couldn't find any study addressing this kind of issue: the effects of chemical additives over time.

Have you ever wondered why we suffer from an obesity epidemic that no amount of dieting seems to solve and that it happens by chance to coincide with the rise of modern agriculture and the explosive use of chemicals? Now is that really a chance coincidence? Moreover the epidemic started in the United States and is now spreading to Europe, neatly reflecting the timing in the birth and growth of "big modern agriculture" on both sides of the Atlantic pond...But of course, there's still no definitive study on the effects of growth hormones that we get from the meat we eat, or for that matter, on possible cancerous effects.

Perhaps there are some vested interests slowing down research, but we don't believe in conspiracies now, do we? 

To my friends and followers:
TOMORROW (October 1) THE PRICE DOUBLES! Hurry to get your copy.
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