Organic Foods are Safer and Healthier than Conventional... True or False?

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September 17, 2012 | 192,602 views

Story at-a-glance

  • A recent analysis by Stanford University found that organic foods are safer, and probably healthier, than conventional foods – IF you are of the conviction that ingesting fewer toxins is healthier and safer for you.
  • Organic foods expose you to fewer pesticides – about 30 percent on average. Organic meats also reduce your risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by an average of 33 percent. It claims it did not, however, find strong evidence supporting the notion that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional
  • The analysis has received widespread media coverage, but with few exceptions, conventional media outlets have used it to cast doubt on the value of an organic diet
  • Previous studies contradict this claim, having concluded that organic foods contain greater nutrient content than conventional foods, including organic grains and organic strawberries
  • The sudden concerted effort to “debunk” organics appears to be related to the upcoming California vote on labeling for genetically engineered foods. If you can be convinced organics is a waste of money, you’re less likely to protect the purity of organics by supporting GE labeling

By Dr. Mercola

In the UK, organic food sales have been falling since 2008. The featured commentary1 discusses whether organic is going "out of style," or if people's tastes and reasoning for going organic are simply changing.

"Sales of organic products have been falling since the credit crunch first bit in late 2008. But thrift alone does not seem to be enough to explain what is now a medium-term trend, since Fairtrade, another ethical certification with a price premium, has not suffered the same reverse, with sales rising by an estimated 12 percent last year.

What seems to be the case is that customers who used to use the organic label as a kind of proxy for good, sustainable produce now look to the specific virtues that most concern them: seasonality, locality, fair trade or animal welfare. Indeed, sometimes their other ethical concerns trump the desire for organics, such as when they choose home-grown peas over air-freighted organic alternatives..." The Guardian states.2

There are probably a number of reasons for this change, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. For the past few years now, I've argued that buying locally grown foods may actually be an overall better choice than the strict focus on organic.

In part because organic produce from overseas may or may not have been grown according to strict organic standards, so you could potentially be overpaying for something that isn't really organic (not to mention the environmental damage caused by shipping food across the globe), and in part because many small farmers actually grow their food according to sustainable, organic principles even though they may not have received organic certification, which is a very costly process.

Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?

Confounding the conversation are recent reports that organic foods are not nutritionally different from non-organic. A recent meta-analysis by Stanford University3 has received widespread media coverage, and with few exceptions, conventional media outlets have used it to cast doubt on the value of an organic diet. The New York Times4, for example, declared "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce," and Fox News' headline claimed "organic food may not be worth the money."5

An editorial in The Los Angeles Times6 bravely bucked the trend, stating "Stanford's research showing that organic produce probably isn't any more nutritious than the conventional variety is mostly remarkable for what it omitted." Still, you've had to be a reader of alternative media to get the real scoop on this study...

In a nutshell, the meta-analysis, which looked at 240 reports comparing organically and conventionally grown food (including 17 human studies), DID find that organic foods ARE safer, and probably healthier than conventional foods—if you are of the conviction that ingesting fewer toxins is healthier and safer for you. While I believe organic foods grown in healthy soils can be more nutritious than their conventional counterparts grown in depleted soils with synthetic chemicals, a major benefit of organically grown foods really is the reduction in your toxic load.

According to the authors:7

"...Two studies reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets, but studies of biomarker and nutrient levels in serum, urine, breast milk, and semen in adults did not identify clinically meaningful differences. All estimates of differences in nutrient and contaminant levels in foods were highly heterogeneous except for the estimate for phosphorus; phosphorus levels were significantly higher than in conventional produce, although this difference is not clinically significant.

The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce (risk difference, 30% [CI, -37% to -23%]), but differences in risk for exceeding maximum allowed limits were small.

...the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to 3 or more antibiotics was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork (risk difference, 33% [CI, 21% to 45%])...

Many Studies Show Organic Foods are More Nutritious

So, will reducing your intake of pesticides have a beneficial impact on your health? Most likely, yes. Unfortunately, creative interpretation and linguistic gymnastics turned Stanford's incriminating findings into an attack on organics... On the upside, health-conscious people everywhere are seeing right through it, and a number of independent news sources have issued thought-provoking rebuttals. For example, NewHope360 writes:8

"...Stanford researchers failed to review reports not written in English... and if the study consists of just comparing notes across a series of studies then the researchers did not meet their due diligence... My colleagues at newhope360 compiled their own review in a matter of minutes of articles that were easy to find and also written in English. But our findings were considerably different from Stanford's.

  • The Organic Center, reliant on donations and industry funding, is in the midst of conducting an actual study on organic vs. conventional vs. natural grain. Not yet complete, they have already determined organic grains are more nutritious.9 And by 'nutritious' they do mean 'more nutrient-rich.'
  • A 2010 study conducted by PloS ONE10, and partially funded by the USDA, found organic strawberries to be more nutrient-rich than non-organic strawberries.
  • In 2009, the American Association for the Advancement of Science featured a presentation on soil health and its impact on food quality.11,12 Conclusion: Healthy soil leads to higher levels of nutrients in crops.
  • Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted their own behavioral study that found higher risk of ADHD in children with higher levels of organophospates (pesticides)."13

Many of the Health Benefits of Organic are Due to What's NOT in Your Food...

Suppversity 14 also recently blogged about this Stanford study, rightfully pointing out that the health benefits are not necessarily related to getting more nutrients from your food, but rather about getting less toxins. In this regard, the Stanford study clearly concurred that organic foods expose you to fewer pesticides – about 30 percent on average. Organic meats also reduce your risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by an average of 33 percent.

Other studies comparing organics and conventional foods have shown the reduction in toxic exposure may be even greater than that. Suppversity writes:

"...[R]esearchers... at the University of Stuttgart set out with a whole different research question than most of their colleagues. Rather than trying to answer loosely defined questions such as 'What's better: conventional or organic?', they wanted to know whether or not it would even be possible to 'produce organic' in an environment that is already profoundly polluted; and... after 10 years and ten-thousands of samples of organic and conventional fruits, vegetables and animal products being analyzed the answer is 'Yes it is!'

'Organic fruits and vegetables had on average 180 times lower pesticide content than conventional products; and only 5 percent of the samples from organic produce were objectionable.' That's the conclusion the researchers in the 10-years special report that has been published in July 2012 (MLR. 2012b)."

Organic Food Debunker was Tobacco Institute Researcher

So, why the sudden concerted effort to "debunk" organics? Could it be that the health benefits of an organic diet threaten the profits of one or more big industries, and that these benefits are considered "inconvenient truths" that need to be quenched? An OpEdNews piece15 revealed one of the co-authors is a former researcher with the Tobacco Institute. Michael Collins writes:

"The study relied on a statistical technique called meta-analysis... The article co-author with recognized expertise in meta-analysis, Ingram Olkin, applied for a grant from Council of Tobacco Research (CTR) in 1976. CTR was part of the infamous Tobacco Institute, an industry group of cigarette manufacturers. Ingram was on the faculty of Stanford University at the time."

He goes on to state that Olkin's work for the Tobacco Institute is discussed in Robert N. Proctor's 2012 Google eBook, Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.16 It's quite telling, if you understand the implications:

"...The most notorious were the so-called Special Projects – typically projects that had been turned down by the CTR's Scientific Advisory Board, or were not expected to qualify for such funding, or were simply hatchet jobs commissioned by the lawyers to deconstruct inconvenient science. The Special Projects helped provide a platform for the industry's obfuscatory propaganda...

Special Project (SP) 109, for example, begun in 1965. Involved a 'collection of cases of emphysema among nonsmokers and among young people.' SP-12 investigated the possibility of 'additional statistical studies... which showed no association between smoking and lung cancer.' ...Dozens of such projects had been launched by the mid-1960s, all shielded from ordinary scrutiny, peer review, or disclosure – and often dealing with 'hot topics' the industry didn't want to see publicized...

Many of these were deliberate hatchet jobs. The statistician George L. Saiger from Columbia University received CTR Special Project funds 'to seek to reduce the correlation of smoking and disease by introduction of additional variables...' The goal of SP-100... was to assemble a panel of experts to repudiate the statistics relied on by the Surgeon General in his recent report; panelists included Saiger but also Leo Katz, K. Alexander Brownlee, and Theodor D. Sterling, all of whom were expected to show that the conclusions in the Surgeon General's report were 'not justified.'

Ingram Olkin, chairman of Stanford's Department of Statistics, received $12,000 to do a similar job (SP-82) on the Framingham Heart Study... Loriallard's chief of research okayed Olkin's contract, commenting that he was to be funded using 'considerations other than practical scientific merit.' Many of these Special Projects were essentially lawyerly assignments, with the biases – or foregone conclusions – expressed in their titles..." [Emphasis mine]

In Order to Protect Genetically Engineered Food Market, Popularity of Organics Must Be Subdued

The Stanford analysis reportedly did not receive outside funding. However, that doesn't mean it was not influenced by potential conflicts of interest, and/or is designed to serve a valuable role in the shaping of public opinion and/or further some industry interests... Another of its co-authors, Dena Bravata, M.D., M.S, has several potential conflicts, although indirectly, as they tie in to her many other studies relating to agricultural biosecurity, which she does receive funding for...

While the connections are not immediately obvious, consider the following:

  1. Dr. Bravata is involved with Stanford in bioterrorism preparedness relating to foodborne & zoonotic illnesses.
  2. Stanford has HUGE stakes in bioterrorism preparedness that includes homeland security funding, as well as having a seat on the National Institutes of Health's Office of Biotechnology Activities. Stanford also has an entire department that concentrates on agricultural biosecurity. An important goal of the network – which is funded by the Homeland Security Act – is to coordinate diagnostic and scientific expertise in agricultural production and security in regard to agricultural pests and pathogens that could be used in bio-terrorism.
  3. To that end, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken the position that organic farming, such as free-ranging chickens and cows and non-GM seeds that you can't "control" are potential biosecurity threats. USDA has even begun putting, in writing, directives on how they want organic farming "contained" – which resembles turning organic farms into nothing more than factory farms.17

  4. So while, technically, Dr. Bravata didn't receive any DIRECT funding for this meta-analysis, given that she's already done studies showing that organic farming could be a biosecurity risk, and given that California-based Stanford has such a huge stake in agricultural biosecurity, which IS funded by an outside source, and given that the controversy over genetically engineered foods is growing, it makes sense that this review would come out at this time and receive such widespread attention.
  5. Later, it could be used to "calm the natives" with assurances that we're not really missing out on anything if organic farming ends up on the chopping block altogether, under the guise of being too great a biosecurity risk.

Organic Farming – A Potential Biosecurity Risk?

The bottom line is that Homeland Security has determined, with Bravata's and Stanford's help, that organic farming is a potential biosecurity hazard. Also with Bravata's and Stanford's help, the USDA/Homeland Security has decided that contained animal/livestock farming and "controllable" genetically engineered seeds are the best way to secure the "safety" of our food. The ultimate goal for global biosecurity is to have seeds and plants that theoretically can't be attacked because they've been bio-engineered to resist pathogens that would be used to destroy crops. This is discussed in a 2002 biosecurity whitepaper by the American Phytopathological Society:18

"Investments in basic research are needed to open new directions for applied research, including greater use of plant biotechnology and plant and microbial genomics for detection, forensics, prevention, or recovery from a bioterrrorist attack on a U.S. crop or food produced from crops.

...NSF, DOE, and USDA: Expand research on genomics and plant biotechnology as the foundation for more rapid and effective development of crop plants with resistance to pathogens that are potential threat agents... As with vaccines for preemptive control of animal and human diseases, having varieties and hybrids of crop plants with resistance is both a deterrence and the best means for recovery from a plant disease used as a threat agent."

The problem is that a lot of people believe organic foods are healthier and safer. And, what to do about all the people who don't like genetically engineered foods, and who want GE foods labeled so they can avoid them?

The answer to all of these questions is to simply convince you that the cost of eating organic is a waste of money because there's no health benefit to it... and if people don't see any health benefit, then they're less likely to support a bill to label GM foods, especially when you have this major chemical Monsanto/DuPont lobby threatening that proper food labeling will result in higher food prices – which of course is a complete lie. (Scores of ingredients must be listed on food labels, and not once has a new labeling requirement led to a massive hike in food prices.)

So, in a nutshell, what better time to come out with a "study" like this than just before the public is about to vote on labeling for genetically engineered foods?

Even Without Stated Funding, You Can Follow the Money Trail...

So what do we have here? We have at least one co-author who appears to have a background in "deconstructing inconvenient science," and another connected to agricultural biosecurity, which is none too keen on organic agriculture... And there are several other co-authors that have yet to be investigated to evaluate their individual industry ties. However, the Cornucopia Institute19 recently pointed out that:

"Cargill, the world’s largest agricultural business enterprise, and foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which have deep ties to agricultural chemical and biotechnology corporations like Monsanto, have donated millions to Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, where some of the scientists who published this study are affiliates and fellows. Stanford researchers had touted their independence by stating they had not received outside financial support for their study, but failed to delineate the close ties between their internal funding sources and industrialized agriculture and biotechnology interests."

There are also ties between Stanford University in general and Monsanto – the leader in genetically engineered seeds, and the driving force behind the opposition to GE food labeling. This could be of interest, considering the fact that the authors claim no primary source of funding whatsoever...

The link between Monsanto and Stanford is discussed by Nicholas Tomasi20, who raises questions about the influence of George H. Poste, a Monsanto board member and a Distinguished Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution (a public policy think-tank). Poste is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and in the wake of 9/11 he became the chairman of the task force on bioterrorism for the U.S. Department of Defense; a position he retained until May 2004.

He's currently a member of the Threat Reduction Advisory Committee for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, as well as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Working Group on Biological Weapons, the Forum on Microbial Threats of the Institute of Medicine Board on Global Health.

All of that is a mouthful, but again, it demonstrates the many diverse ties between Stanford University, biosecurity, Monsanto, and the shaping of public policy...

Of course, I have nothing to tie Poste to this study. But it's interesting to note nonetheless how Monsanto typically ends up being in the periphery whenever organics come under fire. To me, it seems quite clear that this is part of a much larger, concerted effort to discredit organics, in order to clear a path for more controlled agricultural methods, with genetically engineered foods as the ultimate goal. But first, they have to make you think you're not getting anything "extra" by purchasing organics; that you're essentially just wasting your money.

The FBAE21, a European biotechnology awareness and education organization, argues that as GE opposition picks up, it can be countered by pointing out the rising costs of organic foods – which is basically what the Stanford study accomplishes. A quote from the site states:

"When the price of a loaf of bread doubles, as it is on the way to doing, the public's pickiness about production methods will weaken."

Health and Safety Advantages of Organic Food

Mark Kastel with the Cornucopia Institute also sent out an email with his personal take on the Stanford analysis and subsequent media attention. He brings up a few additional points that are well worth considering, such as the decline in nutritional content of fresh produce due to the destruction of soils. Organic agricultural practices promote ideal soil conditions, while conventional farming methods threaten to completely deplete our soils worldwide, which will only worsen nutrition as time goes on. This is vital, since the continued destruction of our soils will ultimately lead to the demise of the entire food system...

Kastel writes, in part:

"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... 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.

...Additionally, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become ubiquitous in processed food with an estimated 80-90 percent contaminated with patented genes... 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.

...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 – as close to 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?"

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 The Guardian September 4, 2012
  • 2 See ref 1
  • 3 Annals of Internal Medicine September 4, 2012; 157(5)
  • 4 New York Times September 3, 2012
  • 5 Fox News September 4, 2012
  • 6 Los Angeles Times September 5, 2012
  • 7 See ref 3
  • 8 September 5, 2012
  • 9 The Organic Center, A Closer Look at What’s in Our Daily Bread report
  • 10 Reganold JP, Andrews PK, Reeve JR, Carpenter-Boggs L, Schadt CW, et al. (2010) Fruit and Soil Quality of Organic and Conventional Strawberry Agroecosy
  • 11 The Organic Center, AAAS Session 2009 -- "Living Soil, Food Quality and the Future of Food", February 2009
  • 12 February 27, 2009
  • 13 Pediatrics May 17, 2010 [Epub ahead of print]
  • 14
  • 15 September 6, 2012
  • 16 Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolishion By Robert N. Proctor (ebook)
  • 17 USDA/APHIS Further Guidance on Biosecurity and Disease Prevention and Control for Nonconfinement Poultry Production Operations (PDF)
  • 18 American Phytopathological Society: The First Line of Defense
  • 19 The Cornucopia Institute September 12, 2012
  • 20, Stanford’s Monsanto Ties Cast Doubt on Organic Food Study, September 8, 2012
  • 21 Why We Need GM Foods?