Organic Food Value Questioned in Stanford Study

September 17 update:

We were surprised to learn the results of this widely reported study from Stanford University – but not anymore. It turns out  that agribusiness giant Cargill and biotechnology companies including Monsanto have donated millions to the Freeman Spogli Institute that prepared the study, reports the Cornucopia Institute. 

The study casts a shadow on the nutritional value of organic foods compared to conventionally grown foods and has been reported in major media from the NY Times to CBS News … without checking the facts.

The results are flawed, Cornucopia points out. Upon deep examination, the research reveals "glaring errors, both in understanding the important and complex differences between organic and conventional foods and in the researchers’ flawed choice of research methods." 

"Make no mistake, the Stanford organics study is a fraud," says Mike Adams of Naturalnews.com and Anthony Gucciardi of Naturalsociety.org. "To say that conventional foods are safe is like saying that cigarettes are safe. Both can be propagandized with fraudulent science funded by corporate donations to universities, and we’re seeing the same scientist who helped Big Tobacco now helping Big Biotech in their attempt to defraud the public."

Although many studies conclude that organic food – produce and meat – are more nutritious than conventionally grown food, a Stanford University study that questions that is receiving a lot of attention.

Researchers at Stanford conducted a meta-analysis – which combines data from 237 previously conducted studies – and concluded that although organic foods have significantly lower pesticide residues, they are not much more nutritious.

"When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food," Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy and the senior author of a paper discussing the study, told The New York Times. "I think we were definitely surprised."

Indeed, the results of the study – which have been covered widely in the mainstream media – contrast sharply with the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date on the subject, which concludes that organic fruits and vegetables average 12% higher nutrient levels. Kirsten Brandt, a scientist at the Human Nutrition Research Center at the UK’s Newcastle University led the research, published in 2001.

Organic advocates counter that 31% lower pesticide residues is significant in preventing future health issues and that chicken and pork are unlikely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria (which Stanford researchers discount because bacteria can killed through cooking).

Also significant, the study finds that organic milk has more omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered key nutrients. 

And the study finds significantly more phenols in organic vegetables and fruits, which are believed to prevent cancer. Stanford’s researchers discounted that, however, because of variations between the studies they compared. 

Sounds like organic foods are living up to their promise, indeed.

Researchers didn’t take taste in account and agree there are many reasons to buy organic, such as the effects of pesticides on young children, the environmental impact of large-scale conventional farming and public health threats from the over-use of antibiotics. 

A 30-year study by Rodale Institute, the longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming practices, offers insight into the plethora of advantages of organic agriculture: the nutritional profile of food; health of soil and water; outperforms during drought; and sequesters carbon in the soil. 

The Cornucopia Institute offers an eloquent opinion about why the Stanford research — and recent media coverage of it — is only likely to increase consumers’ existing confusion over organics, when we should be paying attention to a far more troubling issue: the world’s rising consumption of genetically engineered food. 

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By Mark Kastel, Cornucopia Institute

I have enjoyed a virtually exclusive organic diet for the past 30 years. But I was deeply unsettled by a September 4 New York Times article and a similar Associated Press story casting doubt on the value of an organic diet.

In terms of the extra cost and value of eating organically, I have always subscribed to the adage “pay now or pay later.” While my personal experience does not provide much in terms of a scientifically legitimate sample size, in the last 30 years, after suffering from pesticide poisoning prompted my shift to an organic diet, I have exceeded my insurance deductible only once, due to an orthopedic injury. And my doctor keeps telling me how remarkable it is that I, at age 57, have no chronic health problems and take no pharmaceuticals.

Unfortunately, the analysis done by Stanford University physicians in the articles noted above did not look “outside the box” as many organic farming and food advocates do.

They discounted many of the studies, including by the USDA, that show our conventional food supply’s nutritional content has dropped precipitously over the last 50 years. This has been attributed to the declining health of our farms’ soil, and healthy soil leads to healthy food. Organic farming’s core value is building soil fertility.

Furthermore, there are many externalities that impart risk on us as individuals and as a society, which the physicians failed to look at. For example, eating organic food protects us all from exposure to agrichemicals contaminating our water and air.

Additionally, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become ubiquitous in processed food with an estimated 80%-90% contaminated with patented genes by Monsanto and other biotechnology corporations. The use of GMOs is prohibited in organics.

Interestingly, there have been virtually no long-term studies on human health impacts of ingesting GMOs, although many laboratory animal and livestock studies have led to disturbing conclusions. The best way to operate using the “precautionary principle,” as European regulators mandate, is to eat a certified organic diet.

Current research now indicates that some of Monsanto’s genes are passing through the placenta into human fetuses and into the bloodstreams of adults and children. Organics is a way to prevent your children from becoming human lab rats testing genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or a myriad of other novel life forms.

Stanford researchers, cited in the recent press accounts, dismissed statistically significant differences between agrichemical (pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, etc.) contamination in conventional and organic food.

The researchers might trust the FDA to set ”safe levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in the food we serve our families but many parents have decided to set a lower threshold close zero as possible.

In supporting this cautious approach, there is a growing body of scientific literature that suggests it’s not just the gross level of toxic contamination that pesticides present but rather minute amounts of these toxins can act as endocrine disruptors, or mimickers, sometimes triggering catastrophic and lifelong abnormalities in fetuses and developing children.

Is it worth experimenting with the health of future generations when we know that there is a demonstrated safe alternative — organic food?

To illustrate the difference, researchers at the University of Washington published a paper in Environmental Health Perspectives that documented a tremendous drop in organophosphate pesticide contamination, in the urine of children, after just three days on an organic diet. This is hard science that did sway the Stanford investigation’s conclusion.

Scientists have also recognized that we must take into consideration the disproportionate quantities of food that children consume relative to their body weight, especially of certain fruits and vegetables that have been found to be highly contaminated with synthetic chemicals. Furthermore, their study failed to look at the cumulative effects of contamination in many different food items in one’s diet. Again, children, for developmental reasons, are especially at risk.

Both the New York Times and AP stories did touch on a number of advantages, like lower levels of contamination from antibiotic-resistant pathogens. But that was also dismissed by stating that these could be ”killed during cooking." However we know that inadequate cooking does take place and cross-contamination can easily occur in residential kitchens. So again I pose the question how many potentially lethal antibiotic-resistant organisms do you want to bring into your home?

Although there is conflicting science on whether or not organic food is truly nutritionally superior, there is no doubt that in terms of many parameters, organic food is demonstrably safer.

I will stick with the diet that concentrates on fresh, local, more flavorful food that’s produced without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and genetically modified organisms. And I for one think I’m getting a good value for my own health, while at the same time supporting good environmental stewardship and economic justice for family farmers.

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Mark Kastel is senior farm policy analyst with The Cornucopia Institute. This essay originally appeared on the organization’s blog.

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Comments on “Organic Food Value Questioned in Stanford Study”

  1. being modern

    Once again the Stanford study proves that even scientists don’t see the big picture. Nutritional benefits, taste, and other direct health issues aside, the biggest flaw in this study is the complete discounting of the overall environmental footprint of our food system. Study after study have conclusively shown that organic is better for the overall environment. The energy and petrochemical inputs of industrialized agriculture is huge. More fossil fuel consumption, more energy depletion, more resource consumption can’t ever have a “benign” impact on human health.

    Reply
  2. foodie

    The only way to truly have organic food is to grow/raise it yourself. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that going to the market and buying “organic” is actually 100% organic. Even farmers markets are always 100% organic. Yes it is important to eat as healthy as possible, but in the grand scheme of things what we inhale from the air daily is much worse for us then what we eat. Think about it this way, we eat 5 to 6 times a day. We breathe ALL DAY LONG! But I digress. To recap: if you want 100% organic grow/raise your food yourself. It is as simple as that.

    Reply
  3. mike

    GMOs? Give me a break. Have you guys ever heard of Gregor Mendel? Humans have been genetically modifying their food as long as agriculture has been around.

    There are good reasons for organic farming and consumption. But when you get preachy your arguments sound like flat-earthers and creationists!

    Reply
  4. Rona Fried

    Mike, rather than calling us names, how about checking your facts? GMO’s are completely different from hybridization, which is what you are referring to. We’ve written dozens of articles on the subject – use our search engine and get educated about this important threat to our food system.

    Reply

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