Over the last three months a recurring theme has reared its head in our local newspapers. Variously titled, “Organic food no better than conventional” or “Is Organic better, the jury’s still out”, these articles were sourced from news agencies and were all based on a US media report of a study done at Stanford University.
The Stanford study, “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review”, published in September, 2012 consisted of a review of all scientific papers on the subject since the 1950’s. This type of study is known academically as a meta-analysis. They gathered all the papers they could find, rejected those that fell out of their terms of reference, and summarised the rest. At no point were any original studies carried out. This was a purely a review of existing research. In essence this is what they concluded: 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.”
The media unfortunately focused on the first part of the paragraph and glossed over the second. Yet the second part of their conclusion is highly significant. The researchers concluded that there was a 30 percent “risk difference” between organic and conventional food in terms of pesticide exposure. This sounds to those not statistically trained that there is only a 30 percent less risk of pesticide exposure on organic produce. However in his critique of the study, Dr Benbrook of Washington State University, interprets the risk of being exposed to pesticides in organic food to be 81% lower, than that in conventional food.
The authors of the study tried to minimise the effect of pesticide exposure by stating that the residues found in conventional food were within the the US safety limits. They ignored the cocktail effect of multiple toxins or the cumulative effect of daily consumption. Imagine being offered a glass of water in which a cocktail of pesticides had been added according to the “safe’ limits on a daily basis. Sound appetising? I think given the choice I would choose a glass of pure pesticide-free water.
There is also the question of pesticide exposure to farm workers. In the US up to 20,000 agricultural workers are hospitalised for pesticide poisoning each year. Organic food is definitely safer to produce.
The pesticide issue on its own is a rather pertinent reason to choose organic food. One of the fundamental concerns of organic agriculture is the elimination of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers. This is not only for the benefit of human health but also to preserve the health of the soil and the environment.
The evidence strongly suggests that organic foods are definitely safer than conventional foods and that the researchers avoided publicising this answer to their own question.
Their conclusion on nutrition was not clear cut either. They narrowed down their definition of nutrients to only vitamins and found no significant differences. However, the researchers found higher levels of phosphorus and phenolic antioxidants in organic food. They also found higher levels of omega 3 fats in organic milk and chicken.
In direct contrast, a review of the same studies was done by Newcastle University in the UK in 2011, which found that organic food was significantly more nutritious than conventional. Plant crops in particular were higher in vitamin C and contained more nutritionally significant phytochemicals.
This study was not taken up by the media with the same glee as the Stanford study and this begs the question, why?
The Stanford researchers have come under heavy criticism for lack of transparency on their industry ties. It turns out that Cargill, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world, is a major sponsor of Stanford. One of the researchers, Dr Ingram Olkin, a statistician, was involved with the tobacco industry’s infamous attempt to cover up the health risks of smoking. The chief weapon of the tobacco campaign, was to raise doubt in the mind of the consumer. The same approach is is being applied to organic agriculture.
Organic food is not only about how healthy it is for you as an individual, but how healthy it is for other people and the environment we live in. Focusing on individual health and safety is only one part of the overall benefit of choosing organic food.
Organic farming has four principles: health, ecology, fairness and care.
The principle of health means that organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one indivisible system.
The principle of ecology means that organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
The principle of fairness means that organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness around the shared environment and life opportunities for all people.
The principle of care means that organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.
These principles guide the practice of organic farming. When you make a decision to purchase organic food, you are supporting the above principles. Not only are you providing well for yourself and your family but you are caring about others.
South Africa has a small but dedicated group of Organic farmers that work hard to produce good, wholesome and healthy food that tastes really good. Choosing organic food supports these farmers and sends a clear message that farming organically is the right way to go.