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Benefits of organic food go beyond the personal

The abstract of a new meta-study, Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review has two sentences in its conclusion. Guess which one is making the headlines?

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.

That's right, it's the first one. The Stanford press release quotes lead author Dena Bravata, MD, MS, as saying:

There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.

Hmm, if you're an adult. That's because two studies found "lower levels of pesticide residues in the urine of children on organic diets." Call me crazy, but I think many adults would care about the following, using quotes from the same press release:

  • Organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetable
  • Evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids
  • Phosphorus levels were significantly higher [in organic produce] than in conventional produce
  • [Eating] organic chicken and pork appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria

The press release doesn't highlight it, but the abstract says the risk difference for exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria is 33%, with a range of 21% to 45%.

The study writes off the higher levels of phosphorus as "clinically significant" because few people don't get enough, but according to the National Institutes of Health,

The main food sources are the protein food groups of meat and milk. A meal plan that provides adequate amounts of calcium and protein also provides an adequate amount of phosphorus.

For the increasing numbers of people who are moving to a plant-based diet, phosphorus intake could be important. Evidently we can't absorb the phosphorus in whole-grains because it is stored as phytin. Only the "small amounts" in fruits and grains are available, so we have to make the most of it. Phosphorus makes up 1% of our body weight and is essential for strong bones and teeth. It helps your heart beat, your muscles contract, and your nerves send signals.

I'd happily pay more for organic food to reduce my risk of exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. After all, "more" can still be less than the food-stamp allowance.) I'd rather not dance up to the edge of acceptable dose levels as the government currently defines them.

But the Cook for Good motto is Save money. Eat well. Make a difference. That's why wildly good cooks choose organic whenever possible for reasons that go beyond the personal:

  • We don't want to expose farm workers, farmers, and their unborn children to pesticides. The babies of farm workers have higher rates of birth defects, some horrific (no brains, no arms or legs). Read the riveting Tomatoland befere you decide organic costs too much.
  • We want to support organic farming, which outperforms conventional farming during droughts, builds the soil instead of exhausting it, and uses 45% less energy, according to the Rodale Institute's 30 year farming trial.
  • Organic farming makes the most sense economically as we continue to stress our resources to the point of exhaustion, including oil, water, and yes, phosphorus. See Mark Bittman's terrific summary of Jeremy Grantham's monumentally depressing report, Welcome to Dystopia: entering a long-term and politically dangerous food crisis.
  • We don't want pesticide runoff in the streams or the spread of pollan from genetically modified plants, where it can taint organic fields and do unknown harm to other plants and the life that depends on them.
  • We love bees and know that they are an essential part of the food web. Insecticides used for GMO crops have been linked to Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been killing 30% or more of the honey bees every year since 2006. This may sound twee, but Neil Carman, Ph.D., scientific advisor to Sierra Club, says "production of crops that produce one-third of American diets, including nearly 100 fruits and vegetables. The value of crops pollinated by bees exceeds $15 billion in the US alone."

Vote with your fork for a better world.

Clearly we need more in-depth, long-term studies on the affects of eating the Standard American Diet, complete with pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and one based on real, organic ingredients cooked from scratch. SAD vs. WAO, in other words.

Let's address what Bravata's study cites its own limitation:

Studies were heterogeneous and limited in number, and publication bias may be present.

I believe the findings will be significant, particularly when long-term health outcomes are considered. (Speaking of findings, it is a real shame that the Annals of Internal Medicine is charging $19 for 24 hours of access to the full text of the study. It's not available through the excellent Wake County Library, either. I'll be going to a university library to read the full report. I'd be happy to pay to read it, but not more than my whole book costs ... and just for one day!)

But even if studies show that there is no short-term, personal benefit to buying food that has hasn't been treated with toxins or bred to have toxins in every cell, buying organic is the ethical approach. It helps prevent harm from coming to the people who grow your food. It protects society against drought and famine.

Most importantly, buying organic protects the web of life from the unknowable effects of combining toxins, genetic modification, and evolution.

Reader Comments (1)

Please see my follow-up blog post and slide show on The Huffington Post, written after I read the whole study and tracked down inside money sources, including Cargill. Don't let Big Ag and Big Food tell you not to worry about eating food with pesticides and fierce bacteria.

Sep 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterLinda Watson
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