The way headlines broke after a recent Stanford study comparing organic food to food grown on conventional farms, you'd think organic had been shot and left for dead.
The New York Times, for example, announced that "Stanford scientists cast doubt on advantages of organic meat and produce." Maybe the doubt was inferred from the study's lukewarm synopsis: The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
But wait a minute: Organic food has never been seriously touted as more nutritious or vitamin-rich than conventional food. Nor is it the cure for HIV, a recipe for immortality or the preferred diet of unicorns.
Organic has always been defined by what it isn't, and the first rule of organic food is that it's free of things like pesticide and antibiotic residues, as well as synthetic hormones. The study confirms what organic supporters have long said was the simple truth: Organic food is less adulterated by things you don't want to eat.
The organic watchdog group Cornucopia Institute called the Stanford study "biased" in a Sept. 12 press release, which also raised questions about the study's funding. Several of the authors are fellows and affiliates of Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute, which has received funding from big-ag companies, including Cargill.
The study synthesized the results of 237 previously conducted studies that had compared nutrient and pesticide residue levels in organic and conventional food. Although pesticide-residue levels in conventionally grown food, as compared with the EPA's allowable levels, mostly complied with the law, Cornucopia complained that the meta study failed to discuss any of the specific dangers posed by pesticides.
For example, a 2010 study in the journal Pediatrics found that children with organophosphate pesticides in their systems were more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Another organophosphate pesticide, chlorpyrifos, also poses a risk to the brains of children, especially via prenatal exposure. A residential roach-killer, chlorpyrifos was banned for home use by the EPA in 2001, but the chemical is still permitted for agricultural use on fruit trees and vegetables, and is known by its Dow trade name Lorsban. According to the EPA, 10 million pounds of it is applied annually in the U.S.
Recently, chlorpyrifos was found to stunt development more in males than it did in females. A study conducted in New York City and published in the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology found that while the IQ scores of both boys and girls were lower following exposure, the brains of boys were especially affected. Chlorpyrifos is just one of more than 1,400 pesticides regulated by the EPA.
Given our slowly evolving scientific understanding of pesticide chemicals and the glacial pace of political change, the Stanford study results support the idea that eating organic food reduces our exposure to things that we may someday realize are bad for us, as well as things that we already know are bad, such as chicken and pork contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Had the Stanford study shown higher nutrient levels in organic food, you could be sure the organic industry would be parading those results like the Greeks dragging Hector's dead body around Troy. But if differences in nutrient content are what we want to look for, we should compare the nutrient levels of food grown on small, crop-diverse family farms with those of food grown within large monocultures. Practices common on small, integrated farms, such as composting, crop rotation and mulching, tend to build richer-than-average soil. It would be interesting to compare the nutrition levels on small farms that do these things with those on large farms that don't. There are also the issues of whether farm animals get to experience outdoor pasture and whether a particular farm contributes to pollution and inappropriate land use.
Nutrient levels, then, are just one part of the debate about agriculture. To many in the sustainable-food movement, factory-farmed organic - what you sometimes get at Whole Foods - remains an imperfect compromise. As a wise farmer once told me, "Most big-organic food is still grown by exploited brown people on massive monocultures, just without chemicals."
The Stanford report concluded with the kind of self-contradictory statement that embodies the general confusion the study has generated: The evidence does not suggest marked health benefits from consuming organic versus conventional foods, although organic produce may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and organic chicken and pork may reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In other words, organic isn't any better, but it might be somewhat less worse. If the Stanford team's idea of health includes adding pesticide residues and antibiotic resistant bacteria to my system, then I'd hate to meet its criteria for sick.
- Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about the politics of food and agriculture in Placitas, New Mexico.