(Beyond Pesticides, September 6, 2012) A review of the scientific literature on the health benefits of organic food versus its chemical-intensive counterpart by Stanford University researchers finds that there is a lack of strong evidence that organic foods contain more nutrients than conventional foods; however, the study finds that consumption of organic foods reduces exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The review sparked headlines nationwide questioning the value of purchasing expensive organic food, despite its findings that consumers are exposed to higher levels of pesticides from conventionally grown food. In reaching its conclusions, the study authors chose to discount pesticide hazards by citing the lack of clinical findings and ignoring epidemiologic data on the effects of pesticide exposure. The review, in looking exclusively at the limited clinical data on the benefits of organic food and the hazards of pesticide residues on food, ignored data on the broader benefits of organic practices that protect farmers and farmerworkers, air and water quality, wildlife and biodiversity. The review, Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review, was published in Annals of Internal Medicine.
Researchers looked at 240 studies from around the world comparing nutritional value and levels of contaminants. Specifically, 17 studies focused on human populations consuming organic and conventional diets (six of which were randomized clinical trials). The rest of the studies examined nutrient and contaminant levels, comparing either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide contamination of various products (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs) grown organically and conventionally. It’s important to point out that there were no long-term studies of health outcomes of people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food. The duration of the studies involving human subjects that were cited ranged from two days to two years.
Though the survey of studies on health benefits found that existing science does not show higher nutrient levels in organic produce, it does find conclusive evidence that organic produce is associated with lower levels of pesticide exposure and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the studies, detectable pesticide residues were found on 38% of conventional and 7% of organic produce. It also found that organic chicken and pork reduces exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Driving pesticide risks downward is important because recent science has established strong links between exposure to pesticides at critical stages of prenatal development and throughout childhood, and heightened risk of pre-term, underweight babies, developmental abnormalities impacting the brain and nervous system, as well as diabetes and cancer. Research shows that organic farming eliminates a significant source of toxic chemical contamination in the environment from groundwater pollution and runoff to drift. Organic farming also protects the farmworkers and their families from chemicals that have been shown to cause a myriad of chronic health effects, such as cancer, endocrine disruption and a series of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease. For more information on the many chronic health effects associated with exposure to pesticides, see Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database.
As for what the findings mean for consumers, the researchers say that their aim is to educate people, not to discourage them from making organic purchases. “If you look beyond health effects, there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic instead of conventional,” noted Dena Bravata, MD, MS, the senior author of the paper. She listed taste preferences and concerns about the effects of conventional farming practices on the environment and animal welfare as some of the reasons people choose organic products.
Beyond Pesticides advocates through its Eating with a Conscience website for consumers to choose organic because of the environmental and health benefits to consumers, workers, and rural families. The Eating with a Conscience database, based on legal tolerances (or allowable residues on food commodities), describes a food production system that enables toxic pesticide use both domestically and internationally, and provides a look at the toxic chemicals allowed in the production of the food we eat and the environmental and public health effects resulting from their use.
In order to understand the importance of eating organic food from the perspective of toxic pesticide contamination, we need to look at the whole picture. Organic food can feed us and keep us healthy without producing the toxic effects of chemical agriculture. Aside from contamination issues, conventional agricultural practices have contributed to climate change through heavy use of fossil fuels ””both directly on the farm and in the manufacturing of pesticides and fertilizers”” and through degradation of the soil, which releases carbon. The depletion of soil organic carbon (SOC) through conventional farming has not only released carbon into the atmosphere, it has also limited the fertility and water holding capacity of soils worldwide. The adoption of organic methods, particularly no-till organic, is an opportunity for farming both to mitigate agriculture’s contributions to climate change and to cope with the effects climate change has had and will have on agriculture. Good organic practices can both reduce petroleum dependency and provide carbon sequestration in the soil. For more information on the benefits of organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food program page.
Source: Stanford School of Medicine
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.