Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Well, the responses are coming in to the Stanford study that suggested that organic foods are nutritionally no better than industrially grown ones.  Typically, they're like this one over at Alternet, talking about the other benefits organic food has, like the reduction on pesticides, or how much better it is for the land.
You can't fault this--the points are all valid. And not everyone (like me) has access to the original paper behind the paywall. Nor are all of us qualified to take on the statistical basis for the study, whether the study (particularly being a meta-study) was designed properly, or decide whether its conclusions are valid. So I said I would wait for those with the necessary academic background and standing to read the report and get back to us.
Well, Charles Benbrook, a professor of agriculture at Washington State University and former chief scientist at The Organic Center, has had a chance to read the study and has reported back. Some of his conclusions?
The team’s answer to the basic question “Is organic food more nutritious or safer?” is based on their judgment of whether published studies provide evidence of a clinically significant impact or improvement in health.  Yet few studies have been designed in a way that could isolate such impacts.
From my read of the same literature, the most significant, proven benefits of organic food and farming are: (1) a reduction in chemical-driven, epigenetic changes during fetal and childhood development, especially from pre-natal exposures to endocrine disrupting pesticides, (2) the markedly more healthy balance of omega-6 and -3 fatty acids in organic dairy products and meat, and (3) the virtual elimination of agriculture’s significant and ongoing contribution to the pool of antibiotic-resistant bacteria currently posing increasing threats to the treatment of human infectious disease.
The Stanford team’s study design precluded assessment of much of the evidence supporting these benefits, and hence their findings understate the health benefits that can follow a switch to a predominantly organic diet, organic farming methods, and the animal health-promoting practices common on organically managed livestock farms.
I'm grateful to Benbrook for providing a publicly accessible copy of his paper (in .pdf format). The problem, of course, is that the response will get no where near the coverage that the press release (not even the original paper) has received. It might, had Benbrook titled his paper something like "Organic Food Study Complete Horseshit." Not, I should note, that he says that. Although, from the  carefulacademic language he does use, he seems to be expressing pretty much that sentiment.
A team of plant and food scientists carried out a sophisticated meta-analysis of the “organic-versus-conventional food” nutrient-content literature. The team was led by Kirsten Brandt, a scientist at the Human Nutrition Research Center, Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.   Their analysis was published in Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences in 2011, under the title, “Agroecosystem Management and Nutritional Quality of Plant Foods: The Case of Organic Fruits and Vegetables” (Vol. 30: 177–197).
The Stanford paper cites this analysis but does not mention its findings, remark on the study’s scope and sophisticated methodology, nor acknowledge the major differences in the conclusions reached.

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