My vegetarian friend was all gung-ho about organic food, but I thought she was pretty silly as well. I knew better, so I stuck with my usual vending-machine lunch of Doritos and a Snickers bar, washed down with a Sprite.
It's been 20 years since I graduated from high school, and I wish I could go back in time and kick my own ass away from that vending machine. Never mind organic produce—I should have been eating any produce at all! Still, these days the bulk of the produce I purchase is organic. Yes it's more expensive, but I believe it's a worthwhile expense, as do an increasingly large number of other people. But are we deluded after all?
A recent meta-study completed at Stanford University has made quite a splash in the news media. "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce," says the New York Times. Stanford's own site is running an article headlined "Little evidence of health benefits from organic food, Stanford study finds." What's going on here?
In short, some scientists at Stanford decided to gather together results from 237 studies on organic produce and meat, selected from a field of thousands of papers, and to look at what patterns emerged from the results. According to their article, this is what they found:
1) No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic versus conventional produce, except for higher levels of phosphorus.
2) No consistent differences were seen in the protein and fat content of organic versus conventionally produced milk, although some studies indicated that organic milk has a significantly higher level of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
3) Pesticide levels of all foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits.
4) Two studies of children consuming organic versus conventional diets found lower levels of pesticide residues in the urine of children eating organic diets.
5) Organic chicken and pork contains far less antibiotic-resistant bacteria as compared with conventionally farmed chicken and pork.
So, per the first two conclusions, since there is no measurable nutritional difference between organic and conventional, am I going to give up on my organic produce and go back to eating mostly conventionally farmed food? No, and here's why:
I never began to eat organic food because I thought it contained more vitamins than conventionally grown food, and I didn't start buying organic milk because I thought it had more protein or fat in it. My personal choice began with wanting to avoid pesticide residue, artificial hormones and antibiotics in my food. To be honest, I was astounded when I read the headlines, because it never crossed my mind that vitamins were even an issue.
That brings me to the third conclusion of the study, which is that pesticide levels of all foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits. I'm sure this is so, and so when I'm traveling or eating at someone else's house, I eat what's put in front of me or what's available on a sliding scale of good-for-you versus my budget. But I am also under no illusions about the probable state of my personal toxic burden, just as a virtue of having grown up drinking out of BPA-laden plastic cups and eating food cooked in non-stick pans, in houses full of flame-retardant carpeting, where we had an exterminator come once a month to poison the roaches. More than once I played barehanded with the bead of mercury from a broken thermometer. Back in the 20th century we played fast and loose with all sorts of nasty chemicals, many of which enter your body and stick around in your fat cells for decades.
Human breast milk these days has been found to contain a variety of cancer-causing compounds as well as heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury. Many chemical compounds interact synergistically and can have differing effects on people with different metabolisms, and what one person tolerates just fine may cause tumors in another. So while the pesticide residue on conventional produce may still fall within EPA guidelines, given my chemical-laden past, I'll still exercise my personal right to decide to try to avoid as much of that stuff as possible now.
When it comes to the fourth conclusion in the study, that children who eat organic diets have less pesticide residue in their urine, the Stanford scientists said that "the significance of these findings on child health is unclear." However, other studies have shown that children exposed to higher levels of organophosphate pesticides have an increased incidence of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) compared with children not so exposed, and that fetal exposure to those same pesticides is correlated with a decrease in IQ.
The fifth conclusion (that organically farmed pork and chicken carries a significantly lower load of antibiotic-resistant bacteria) is also downplayed in the findings of the study, even though antibiotic-resistant bacteria are well known to be increasingly dangerous, and animal-borne bacterial diseases like tuberculosis and chlamydia that were well-controlled in the late 20th century are now returning as menaces to public health. Conventional farming practices use feed that is supplemented with antibiotics, not to treat illness in the animals, but to make up for the pathogenic pressure of crowded feedlots and to cause chronically stressed animals to gain weight more quickly. It is true that properly cooking your meat should kill all the bacteria on it (antibiotic-resistant or not), but what if you accidentally ingest something undercooked? Or what if you cut yourself while trimming a raw chicken for the pan? For that matter, what about the line workers at the slaughterhouses?
The health of farm workers is also a major reason that many people choose to eat organic produce. While you personally may not get sick from eating a few conventionally grown nectarines, the guy who picked hundreds or thousands of fruit during the season has been exposed to a much larger dose of pesticides, and he's much less likely to be educated enough to take precautions against the poisons he's working with. Also consider the health of the soil that supports the plant: a healthy soil contains all sorts of symbiotic fungi and bacteria that supply essential trace minerals to the plant. Pesticides and chemically synthesized inorganic fertilizers destroy this web of life in the soil, creating a kind of fertilizer-dependent desert where no crops will grow well without the application of more of these same fertilizers. Nitrogen runoff from decades of this kind of agriculture has created a huge dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi river in the Gulf of Mexico, where phytoplankton bloom and absorb all the available oxygen in the ocean, killing off fish and all higher marine life.
Food is so important, so fundamental to life, that we find it easy to get upset and begin to argue about it. Conventional agricultural scientists, vegan activists and locavores are all pitted against each other in an unending shouting match. Boy does that stuff ever get tiresome. In fact, according to Cornell scientists in a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, if you live in the United States, the real problem is that the entire agricultural system itself is just not sustainable. If you're worried about the righteousness of your diet, it doesn't much matter whether what you eat is vegan, vegetarian or meat-based, or whether you're a locavore or not, because the whole system depends so thoroughly on fossil energy. Farmers in California rely on demand from consumers in Virginia in order to make a profit from their apricot orchards, and so apricots (whether organic or conventional) are trucked across country to make sure that everyone gets paid. Eating local just puts the pinch on distant farmers who are already economically stressed and trying to make ends meet. All those 18-wheelers full of California apricots also do a great job of spreading diesel fumes across the land, and especially here in Salt Lake City they undoubtedly contribute to our fabulously polluted air. If you stop to think about it, you may never stop thinking about it. You might just get overwhelmed and slide into apathy. Why even try? What difference can a single person or a single family possibly make?
Each person can make a little difference, and that's what matters. I do not eat in a particularly righteous manner, but I do what I can with the resources I have available. I support organic farming practices because I am lucky enough to have access to them, and I think that they matter. I have a belief, quite literally in my gut, that the soil we grow food in should be as alive as a few billion years' worth of evolution can make it. Even though I can't do much personally about our current agricultural system, I can treat my body with respect, avoiding pesticides, artificial hormones, and feedlot antibiotics where I am able.
So, the Stanford scientists are thoroughly missing the point. It's not about the vitamins in any given apple, it's about the whole ecology around us, our communal psychology, and the little choices we're making now that will eventually amplify and affect the future. I don't know how to wean U.S. agribusiness off fossil fuels, cure the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or improve the plight of migrant workers, but I can choose to buy organic apples. How many bites does it take to change the world?
Link to the Stanford study: med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html