The Benefits of Organic Food and Farming

Navigating Headlines, Questioning Conclusions and Calling for Common Sense

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Are organic foods more nutritious than conventional?  Are they healthier or safer?

As a dietitian, I’m often asked these questions, and without hesitation, I say, “Yes.” Then I explain why.

For example, I describe how our strict national organic standards (1) prohibit the use of irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, dangerous pesticides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in organic food and farming. Farmers can’t give organic livestock antibiotics or growth hormones, and they must feed their animals 100 percent organic (non-GMO) feed. Organic farmers must also give their livestock access to the outdoors and ample time on quality pasture (1), which results in milk and meat with higher levels of health-protecting omega-3 fatty acids (16).

Organic farming methods are based on building and improving the soil, promoting biodiversity, and protecting our natural resources. It stands to reason that healthier ecosystems, higher quality soil and clean water will produce healthier plants, which in turn support healthier animals and humans, not to mention a healthier planet.

That’s why I was shocked to read this headline from a recent Stanford University press release: “Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, Stanford study finds” (2).

The headline made no sense in light of the growing body of scientific evidence showing how organic food and farming protects our environment and public health.

News Literacy 101: Scratching Beneath the Headlines to Find Food Truth

National news outlets—often understaffed, hungry for controversy, and easily swayed by prestigious university reports—ran with Stanford’s press release and proceeded to misinform millions of American consumers.

If the reporters had taken the time to read the original study (3) more carefully and thought about its conclusions more critically, they would have seen that the headline didn’t match the study’s findings or reflect the known benefits of organic food and farming.

The Stanford researchers said they wanted to investigate whether organic foods were safer or healthier than conventional alternatives. Instead of conducting new research, they reviewed a collection of about 240 studies. However, more knowledgeable agricultural scientists say key research was either left out of the analysis or not well interpreted (4, 5, 6).

Based on their review, the Stanford researchers concluded the following:

  1. “There is no strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”
  2. “Organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic resistant bacteria.” 

The researchers also reported that“organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids,” and organic produce had higher levels of health-protecting antioxidants.

Sounds like healthier, safer, and more nutritious than conventional food to me, and the evidence is even stronger than the Stanford study suggests.

New Math

Numbers and statistics can be tricky. For example, the Stanford University press release stated that “organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables.”

However, Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota’s Southwest Research & Outreach Center, and Chuck Benbrook, a researcher at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, found fault with Stanford’s statistical model and the researchers' conclusions.

Riddle explains, “The Stanford team found that nonorganic foods are likely to contain pesticide residues 37 percent of the time and organic foods 7 percent of the time. Given those percentages, the risk of exposure to pesticides decreases by 81 percent when someone chooses to consume organic vs. nonorganic foods” (emphasis mine).
When Benbrook used USDA’s pesticide data to assess six common fruits, he found an even greater—94%—reduction in health risk simply by choosing the organic fruit over conventional (5).

In addition, the Stanford study failed to account for the additive effects of multiple pesticide residues in our diets. Benbrook says that while pesticide residues are rarely found in organic food, “most conventional fruit and vegetable samples contain two to five [pesticide] residues, and in several important crops, about 10% of samples contain eight or more residues” (5).

The presence of a pesticide residue is just one factor that determines risk, says Benbrook. We have to consider the pesticide's toxicity, synergistic effects with other residues, and the age and health of the person exposed. There’s growing evidence that even small amounts of pesticides—well under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) limits—can cause harm to embryos and children. We are wise to err on the side of safety, and keep these neurotoxins out of our children’s environments.

Healthier and Safer

Reduced exposure to pesticides is a key reason why consumers choose organic food, and they’re smart to do so. For example, in 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel Report (7) recommended choosing food grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers to reduce our risk for cancer.

While Stanford researchers acknowledged that children on organic diets have significantly lower levels of pesticide metabolites (breakdown products) in their urine, the study fell short in emphasizing the connection between urinary pesticide metabolites and behavior problems, such as ADHD (8). A growing body of research shows that pesticide exposure harms our developing children’s brains, and increases their risk for birth defects, ADHD, autism, reduced I.Q., and other neurodevelopmental problems (5, 6, 8, 9, 10).

The Stanford researchers also found that organic chicken and pork “appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” They said, “the clinical significance of this finding is unclear,” so let me explain.

Antibiotic resistant infections are one of the greatest threats to public health according to reports by the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (11, 12). Most recently, the same strain of antibiotic resistant bacteria found in conventional chicken was identified as the culprit in painful antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections (13).

Because organic livestock are not given antibiotics, they are naturally less likely to harbor and spread antibiotic resistant bacteria. That makes organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products both healthier and safer.

Plus, by buying organic food, we’re not only protecting our own family’s health. We’re using our food dollars to vote for a food and agriculture system that protects farm workers and their children, too.

What Makes a Food “Nutritious”? 

Foods that are “nutrient-dense”—that provide a rich source of nutrients in relation to their calories—are considered “nutritious.” It’s easy to see how a can of soda would be less nutritious than a glass of orange juice or milk. But what about conventional versus organic milk, meat, fruits and vegetables?

Because of organic pasture rules, we can expect organic meat and milk to have higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and less detrimental omega-6 fatty acids (16).

Generally speaking, organic fruits and vegetables also have higher beneficial nutrient levels, especially vitamin C and antioxidants. These nutrients serve as plant defenses against diseases and pests in an organic farming system (5). 

However, many factors affect a food’s nutritional content: seed variety, growing conditions, post harvest handling, storage time and temperature, and finally, consumer handling. So if you harvested fresh organic spinach from your backyard garden and then let it sit in your crisper for a week, or overcooked it after harvesting, you can count on losing nutritional quality.

Personally, I like to factor food safety into my definition of “nutritious.” I look at food safety from both a chemical and bacterial perspective. For example, if an otherwise nutrient-dense food is contaminated with bacteria, toxic chemicals, or antibiotic, pesticide, or hormone residues, then it becomes less “nutritious.”

Did You Know?

  • Organic farming practices protect groundwater and drinking water from harmful pesticide and nitrate contamination (6, 14).
  • Several common pesticides and herbicides used in conventional agriculture are “endocrine disruptors.” These chemicals interfere with the normal action of our hormones, and have been linked to a host of illnesses ranging from cancer to diabetes to weakened immune function (15).
  • Because of their smaller body size and rapid physical development, children are especially vulnerable to the effects of pesticides and other environmental toxins (7, 15).

Bottom line:

  • Think beyond the headlines. Question who funds the research, question the research methods, and ask what was left out of the analyzed data.
  • Support organic farmers. They understand the connection between soil quality, plant, animal and human health. They go the extra mile to protect our shared natural resources.  If a farming system is better for the Earth, it’s better for us too.
  • Learn more about the benefits of organic food and farming, from reducing our exposure to toxic chemicals to slowing climate change and even boosting our national economy.  See the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s report, “Organic Farming for Health and Prosperity” (17), and read Organic Valley dairy farmer Regina Beidler’s personal account of the benefits that organic has had on her farm, animals and family.

References:

  1. USDA National Organic Program: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/organicinfo
  2. Brandt, Michelle. “Little Evidence of Health Benefits from Organic Foods, Stanford Study Finds.” Inside Stanford Medicine. Stanford School of Medicine. 3 September 2012. http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html
  3. Smith-Spangler, C. et. al. “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review.” Annals of Internal Medicine. American College of Physicians. 4 Sept. 2012. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685
  4. Benbrook, Chuck, Ph.D. “The Devil in the Details.” Campaign for WSU. Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University. 4 Sept. 2012. http://organicfarms.wsu.edu/blog/devil-in-the-details/
  5. Benbrook, Chuck, Ph.D. “Initial Reflections on the Annals of Internal Medicine Paper ‘Are Organic Foods Safer and Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review.’”Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University. 4 Sept. 2012. http://www.tfrec.wsu.edu/pdfs/P2566.pdf
  6. Riddle, Jim. “Webinar: Why Eat Organic?” Cooperative Extension System. Updated 12 January 2012. http://www.extension.org/pages/61954/why-eat-organic-webinar
  7. President's Cancer Panel Report: "Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now." U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. April 2010. http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualreports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf
  8. Bouchard, Maryse F., Ph.D., et. al. “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Urinary Metabolites of Organophosphate Pesticides.” Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics. 17 May 2010. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2010/05/17/peds.2009-3058.abstract
  9. Grossman, Elizabeth. “‘Organic, Schmorganic’ – Unless It’s Your Child’s Ability To Learn That’s Impaired By Pesticides.” The Pump Handle. ScienceBlogs, LLC.13 September 2012. http://scienceblogs.com/thepumphandle/2012/09/13/organic-shcmorganic-unless-its-your-childs-ability-to-learn-thats-impaired-by-pesticides/
  10. Landrigan, Philip; Lambertinis, Luca; and Birnbaum, Linda. “A Research Strategy to Discover the Environmental Causes of Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities.” Environmental Health Perspectives. 120:7. July 2012. library.constantcontact.com/download/get/file/1102175172120-212/Autism_editorial_final.pdf
  11. “Antibiotic Resistance” Fact Sheet. Infectious Diseases Society of America. Updated April 2011. http://www.idsociety.org/AR_Facts/
  12. Wallinga, David, M.D. “The Invisible Epidemic: Giving Voice to the Faceless Victims of Antibiotic Overuse.” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. 14 September 2012. http://www.iatp.org/blog/201209/the-invisible-epidemic-giving-voice-to-the-faceless-victims-of-antibiotic-overuse
  13. McKenna, Maryn. “Investigation: Drug Resistance, Chicken and 8 Million UTIs.” Wired Science Blogs: Superbug. Conde Nast. 11 July 2012. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/07/resistance-chicken-utis/
    (Also listen to the interview on Food Sleuth Radio: http://kopn.org/a/fl2.html?http://kopn.org/dc/fs/09-13-12%20Food%20Sleuth%20Radio.mp3)
  14. Rodale Institute’s 30-year Farming Systems Trial: http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/fst30years
  15. The Endocrine Disruption Exchange. www.endocrinedisruption.org 
  16. Clancy, Kate. "Greener Pastures: How Grass-Fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating." Union of Concerned Scientists. March 2006. www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/solutions/smart_pasture_operations/greener-pastures.html;
  17. Dimitri, Carolyn, Ph.D., et. al. “Organic Farming for Health and Prosperity.” The Organic Farming Research Foundation. August 2012. http://ofrf.org/news/organic-farming-health-prosperity-indeed.

Precautionary Principles:
Putting Our Kids First

When it comes to organic and reducing exposures to pesticides, Melinda recommends that we err on the side of safety, especially when it comes to our kids. There is mounting evidence that many chronic adult diseases get their start from chemical exposures that happen in utero. And scientists are just scratching the surface on learning the effects of multiple pesticide exposures.

A Generation in Jeopardy

Kids today are sicker than they were a generation ago, and a growing body of scientific evidence points to pesticides as a reason why. From childhood cancers to learning disabilities and asthma, a wide range of childhood diseases and disorders are on the rise. Pesticide Action Networks's new report reviews dozens of recent scientific studies on the impacts of pesticides on children's health. Download

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