Jeez, how many of these are there going to be? Several months ago, recall, we had a large study under the aegis of Stanford University, that told us in no uncertain terms that organic food wasn’t any better for us than the ordinary industrial agriculture garbage that litters the aisles of American supermarkets. Well, to be more precise, the study claimed there was no additional nutritional benefit from organic food. This, as is now pretty clear, is a worthless claim.
Lo and behold, here’s another one! This one comes to us courtesy of a group of pediatricians—who also assure us that there is no nutritional difference between organic foods and the usual crap. In fact, this comes with the imprimatur of the American Academy of Pediatricians, so you know you won’t be able to argue with it—these people are doctors. And of course it got featured prominently in an NBC news segment—just like the Stanford study. To be fair, the AAP study looks a bit more balanced than the Stanford study—it does highlight the fact that organic foods don’t have pesticides and insecticides. Well, that’s something. And the NBC story itself, as is so often the case, isn’t actually very good—it goes for the headline excitement, rather than plain old reporting.
Again, what they did was review studies. How come no one can every undertake their own study any more? It’s all reviewing other people’s studies. Of course, this lets you avoid dealing with the issue of bothering to find out who actually funded those other studies. Actually, who funded the AAP study? I can’t tell. The Stanford study was funded by—indirectly—the agribusiness industry—Cargill provide funding to the foundation that sponsored the study. Quelle surpise! Of course, we know that academics would never let their integrity be compromised by external funding.
OK, let’s cut to the chase here. There are numerous reasons to eat organic foods that have nothing to do with nutrition. I’m perfectly prepared to believe that the nutritional differences of some organic carrots grown on some local farm aren’t all that different from what comes by the railcar load from California or wherever carrots come from. That’s not the point anyway. It’s the nutritional differences in overall diet that matter—and I’ll bet people who eat organic food tend to not eat the load of crapola that passes for “diet” for many Americans, or many Britons, for that matter. Moreover, there’s the chemicals issue, which the AAP points out is a real issue—this got by-passed entirely in the Stanford study—but of course, they weren’t looking for anything like that. Frankly, when someone tells me that there’s no evidence that pesticide levels in industrial agrigarbage will have long-term health effects, that’s going to end the conversation right there. Finally, there’s the fact that often—although not always, certainly—organic means local, or at least regional. And supporting local agriculture, while it gets more difficult every year, is one of the most worthwhile endeavors citizens can pursue these days.
The estimable food writer of the New York Times, Mark Bittman, went to town a few weeks ago on the Stanford study, trashing it magnificently. As Bittman points out, the Stanford study defines “nutritious” pretty narrowly—purely in terms of containing more vitamins. This not only misses the point, it seems designed to obscure it. Bittman also points out that the study has some embarrassing limitations—or outright errors, depending on your point of view:
Yet even within its narrow framework it appears the Stanford study was incorrect. Last year Kirsten Brandt, a researcher from Newcastle University, published a similar analysis of existing studies and wound up with the opposite result, concluding that organic foods are actually more nutritious. In combing through the Stanford study she’s not only noticed a critical error in properly identifying a class of nutrients, a spelling error indicative of biochemical incompetence (or at least an egregious oversight) that skewed one important result, but also that the researchers curiously excluded evaluating many nutrients that she found to be considerably higher in organic foods.
There’s more, of course—how can there not be? Bittman call it “junk science,” and he seems to be correct. Bittman has some other choice comments:
Like too many studies, the Stanford study dangerously isolates a finding from its larger context. It significantly plays down the disparity in pesticides (read Tom Philpott on this) and neglects to mention that 10,000 to 20,000 United States agricultural workers get a pesticide-poisoning diagnosis each year. And while the study concedes that “the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was 33 percent higher among conventional chicken and pork than organic alternatives,” it apparently didn’t seek to explore how consuming antibiotic-resistant bacteria might be considered “non-nutritious.” Finally (I think) it turns out that Cargill (the largest privately held company in the United States) provides major financing for Freeman Spogli, and that’s inspired a petition to retract the findings.
None of this makes me feel better at all about the food establishment in the United States. This follows on a superb investigation by Bloomberg (which is showing signs of turning into a really interesting and important news organization in its own right) on the complete failure of the food inspection system in the United States over the past several decades as the system essentially has been privatized. Why should 3000 Americans die annually from contaminated food? I don’t know either. I bet it’s not going to improve under President Romney.
When I explain to people why I choose to live in Britain, I usually say, “We like the weather and the food.” This usually stops conversation, but, in London at least, we don’t get the temperature or humidity extremes that we used to get in New York or Boston. And the food—my butcher can tell me which farm my meat is coming from this week. We’ve been to the farm that our vegetables come from. We don’t have to worry about antibiotics in our meat even on those occasions we get some from Marks & Spencer or Waitrose. And it tastes good—the real reason to eat organic—or at least local. And we can do that here. Mrs W is of the view that she didn’t really know what veal was supposed to taste like until we moved here, and I’m inclined to agree. Plus, given the depressing state of farming even here, there are still lots of small farms getting by providing us city folk with the fruits and vegetables and meats of their labors at markets all over London—or any other city or town you might hit on market day. A return to more localism entails a move to more local food production–which is exactly what major agribusiness firms don’t want. So the nutritional differences between organic and non-organic are the least of the issues here. As Bittman says, it’s a distraction. Hey, what’s for dinner?
ht: Chris in Paris
The stamps above are a series from Sweden, which takes organic farming seriously.