Friday, February 15, 2013

Demystifying the Organic Food Controversy

Posted by: Alexis Alvey, CSU Denver Extension

Back a couple months ago, there was a big hoopla about a scientific article that reviewed the safety and nutrition of organic foods.  This eighteen page article was published in the esteemed journal, Annals of Internal Medicine by Stanford University* and concluded that, “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”  Wow, I thought.  Well that is a huge blow to organic producers, food activists, environmental leaders, and anyone else who gives a damn about where their food comes from!  My sentiments were felt even more strongly by others.  For weeks, my Facebook newsfeed was littered with status updates from various people and organizations proclaiming all sorts of things like, “Stanford is a pawn of big ag industry!”, “Academia should DIE!” and “Scientists don’t care about organic growers!!”.  Well, these emotional reactions kind of pissed me off a bit, because, one, I work in academia; two, I consider myself to be a scientist; and three, I went to an Ivy-League school (which isn’t a pawn of big ag industry, as least as far as I know).

In 2012, the CSU Denver Extension Vegetable Demonstration Garden at Harvard Gulch Park produced 750 lbs of organic food, which was donated to the St. Francis Homeless Shelter

So, like the good scientist that I am, I figured I would actually read the article before I made any judgments about the academic integrity of our higher education system.  Most of the eighteen page article was filled-up with nearly three hundred different citations and references, so it didn’t take me too long to read it.  I quickly realized that the authors were not presenting anything new; instead, they were merely reviewing existing studies, synthesizing the information, and trying to draw some sort of conclusion from 240 published studies on organic vs. conventional.  After reading the paper, the biggest conclusion I came to was that more studies are needed on this topic.  As the authors state, many of the studies they examined were “heterogeneous,” and from a statistical perspective, they were difficult to compare.  Furthermore, the authors admit that there have been no long-term studies comparing the health of populations consuming organic food versus populations consuming conventional food (controlling for socioeconomic factors of course).  These types of studies would be extremely difficult and costly to conduct, but are most certainly needed.  Nevertheless, the authors did find some really interesting results –
  • The levels of the nutrient phosphorus are significantly higher in organically-grown produce compared to conventionally-grown produce;
  • Organic produce has a 30% lower risk for contamination with any detectable pesticide residue than conventional produce;
  • E. coli contamination risk does not differ between organic and conventional produce;
  • And, the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was 33% higher among conventional chicken and pork than organic alternatives.

I was also shocked to learn that bacterial contamination is really common in animal food products.  About 65% of both conventionally-raised and organically-raised chicken samples were contaminated with Campylobacter and about 35% of both were contaminated with Salmonella.  49 – 65% of pork samples were contaminated with E. coli for both conventional and organic.  Ewww.  How disgusting.  I will now be even more vigilant about cooking my meat, and will be more empathetic towards my vegetarian sisters.

Veggies growing at the CSU Extension - Jefferson County office

As I sat that night in my quite apartment munching on some hummus and baby carrots (and yes, the carrots were organic, but the hummus was not), I began wondering why people get so upset and so angry when they are presented with new scientific evidence that challenges their views and beliefs?  Perhaps the organic vs. conventional debate, like so many other issues in horticulture, can’t be boiled down to mere facts.  It is the passion, emotions, and values that underlie an issue that really motivate and move people.  There are so many disparate reasons why people buy or grow organic or conventional food that knowing the amount of phosphorus in an apple isn’t going to change people’s actions.  What about the apple grower who decides to use only organic pesticides because he is worried about chronic exposure to organophosphate pesticides?  What about the single mother on food stamps who is relieved to find conventional apples on sale for fifty cents a pound?  Is one person right and one person wrong?  There are many reasons why an individual may buy or grow organic or conventional food, and we should find it in our hearts to be nonjudgmental and open to all different viewpoints and choose what is best for us as individuals.

*Smith-Spangler et. al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? A systemic review. Ann Intern Med. 2012; 157:348-366


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  2. As an organic farmer I think you did an excellent job trying to clarify the article. As the research clearly states, based on the limited information they had, the evidence is not conclusive in regards to the long term health benefits since no adequate study has been conducted. The simple fact is up to the consumer to choose from: eat foods grown using chemicals and antibiotics proven harmful to humans or not. No one thought tobacco was dangerous either... it's a matter of choice.

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