A group of doctors at Stanford Medical School has done us the favor of reviewing 237 research studies that looked for possible benefits of organic foods.  It’s a great article, but my first reaction concerns the title, “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?”  Right up front – in the title – these doctors assume that foods produced with fertilizers, ammonia, pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics are “conventional.”  I’ll come back to this.

Did the doctors find that organic food is more nutritious?

Not much, if any.  Most research found the nutritional value of “conventional” food and organic food pretty similar for micronutrients such as calcium and vitamins.  There are a little more phosphorus and total phenols in organic foods, but it is difficult to say what that might mean.  There was also a strong suggestion that organic milk and organic chicken had more omega-3 fatty acids, but there was no demonstrated health benefit.

What is different about organic food?

Researchers identified no difference in the percent of foods with bacterial contamination.  There was even a suggestion that some types of organic food might have more bacteria than “conventional” foods.  However, “conventional” foods had a 50 percent higher chance (or as they state, organic food had a 33 percent lower chance) that the bacteria in the food would be resistant to 3 or more antibiotics.  

The number of people studied were too small to detect risks from these drug resistant bacteria, but many experts believe that use of antibiotics to make “conventional” animals grow faster has been a driver of the resistance to antibiotics found in many bacteria that commonly infect people.  [Antibiotics shift intestinal bacteria so animals absorb more nutrients from the intestine and gain weight faster.  A heavier animal earns more money for the farmer, etc.] 

More troubling, however, 38 percent of “conventional” foods contained pesticides, but – I am disappointed to note – so did 7 percent of organic foods. It seems that eating organic doesn’t totally protect one from pesticides.

Nevertheless, in a couple of small studies, children who ate organic food had less pesticide residue in their urine tests.  The authors commented that “…organic fruits and vegetables may significantly reduce pesticide exposure in children, [but the studies] were not designed to assess the link between the observed urinary pesticide levels and clinical harm.”  That doesn‘t make pesticides safe, it only means no one has looked.

What is conventional?

Reliance on pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics is a new feature in American farming. My great grandfather and his neighbors raised corn, cows, chickens, and pigs without the presumed benefits of insecticides and antibiotics for his animals. DDT, the first widely used pesticide, was a military secret and unavailable to civilians, e.g. farmers, until late 1945. Erythromycin, a commonly used animal feed antibiotic, wasn’t invented until the early 1950’s.  What we call “organic” was actually conventional until relatively recently.

The doctors who wrote the article might argue that herbicides, pesticides, and antibiotics have been adopted so widely that they have become conventional as defined in the dictionary, “Developed, established, or approved by general usage; customary.”  But there is also a legal definition, “Based upon consent or agreement; contractual.” 

I’d like to ask, when did we consent or agree that chemical farming would be “conventional”? I don’t remember being consulted, but glyphosate, AKA Roundup, became the leading herbicide used in food production at the end of the 20th Century when I was old enough to have an opinion. 

[Just for reference, Monsanto sells the weed killer glyphosate under the name Roundup. They also sell seeds for genetically engineered soy plants that contain a gene that allows the soy plant to survive the herbicide.  Since the seed is “ready” for the herbicide, it is called “Roundup Ready.” The problem is that weeds are developing the same resistance and becoming “roundup ready” on their own – so Monsanto is working on stronger herbicides even as you read this.]

Why we eat may guide how we choose to eat.

If the purpose of food is only to shovel in nutrients, buying organic probably doesn’t make much difference.  If, however, you believe we are what we eat, then organic food exposes us and our children to fewer chemicals and fewer bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotics. 

Compared to much of the world, I believe that American food is pretty safe, but the prevailing sentiment seems to be that, if safety of chemicals in food hasn’t been looked at, then it isn’t a problem.  I worry that the safety of “conventional” food is a lot like the problems of BPA in our food – until you look really carefully, you don’t know if it’s safe – only that you don’t know.

We owe a big thanks to the Stanford doctors.  They’ve highlighted how much we still need to find out before we can accept many current farming methods as “conventional.”



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