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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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