The problems with the recent Stanford study on organic foods are so numerous I hardly know where to begin. For those who haven’t seen it, the scientists reviewed a number of published studies comparing organically grown foods with conventionally grown foods in terms of nutrient content. They also looked for studies that showed health outcomes based on whether people ate organic or conventionally raised foods. The media have immediately jumped on the topic and most are slanting the headlines to make it look as though there’s no advantage to organic food.
Problem #1: Most of the studies did not have a definition of “organic.” That factor alone casts great doubt on the results of the Stanford study. If I define organic as certified organic according to the USDA standards (with which, by the way, I have a number of quibbles) and you define organic as whatever the producer says it is and someone else defines it as “all natural” – well, we aren’t starting from the same point and we are highly unlikely to arrive at the same destination.
Problem #2: The authors themselves noted difficulties in performing the analysis due to the wide variety of testing methods used in the studies. (See problem #1) And I would add, that if they were not also testing the same varieties, it’s also a Problem #1. Some varieties have been clearly proven to have more of certain nutrients than others.
Problem #3: Just because something is labeled organic does not mean it was grown in a way that would maximize nutritional quality. A farm that has been organic for three years – the minimum definition for certified organic under USDA standards – is very different from a farm that has been under organic cultivation for ten or twenty years. Organic, certified or not, doesn’t mean the produce or animal product has been grown in well-watered, mineral- and nutrient-rich soil that is loaded with beneficial soil organisms. Any gardener worth her trowel will tell you that it takes years of work to achieve good soil conditions.
Problem #4: Foods harvested before they are ripe, as both conventional foods and commercial organic foods are, are not good candidates for maximum nutrition. Moreover, those foods are often stored for a week or more under varying conditions before you buy them and take them home to eat. Vitamins are especially susceptible to storage loss even under ideal conditions.
Problem #5: The risk of pesticide exposure is actually much less than the authors’ published figure of 30% because of the way they performed their calculation. The correct figure is an 81% lower risk for organic produce, according to Chuck Benbrook, who took their raw data and crunched it correctly. Nor did the Stanford folks distinguish between pesticides that are relatively innocuous and those that are quite toxic, or between tiny amounts of the innocuous pesticide and larger amounts of several pesticides combined.
Problem #6: The study and the media downplay the risk of antibiotics in conventionally raised meats. Those superbugs we’re dealing with didn’t come from organic foods, folks, they were brought to you by the people who confine animals on concrete, jam them together unmercifully and feed them antibiotics because otherwise the poor critters – who in many cases have little to no disease resistance – would sicken and die by the millions. The study authors seem to think the real problem with drug-resistant bacteria is because of the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in humans. Hmmm – fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter was clearly linked to the use of antibiotics in poultry; Escherichia coli and Salmonella come directly from contaminated food.
Problem #7: The studies of the “long-term” health effects in humans ranged in length from two days to two years. Most nutrient deficiencies take a lot longer to show up. Vitamin C deficiency is about the only one I can think of that will show up within less than a year.
There were other problems with the study and its conclusions that I’m not going to go into here (and as an aside, I spent years working in clinical quality improvement and I am currently a medical/health freelance writer – I look at a LOT of research and know how to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff). Suffice it to say, I would certainly not use this study as a reason to buy conventional foods because “they’re just as good as organic and less expensive.” However, I consider commercially grown organic food as a rather poor option when you can grow your own or buy locally from a CSA , local farmer or farmer’s market. Obviously, if you grow your own, you know exactly what did/didn’t go into the food, how the soil was managed and amended, whether the produce was harvested at peak ripeness, etc. With the other options, you usually have the opportunity to go take a look at the operations that are producing your food. With meat, eggs and milk, it’s even more important – we pay far too little attention to how these are raised in our country. I can’t tell you about the difference, but if you’ve even cracked the egg of a free-range pastured hen raised on grass, weeds, bugs and sunshine next to the egg of a mass-produced battery chicken, even if it is organic (like the ones in the picture on the right above), you know what I’m talking about.