Despite recently publicized headlines to the contrary, eating organic really is better for our health. Here's why.
If you were paying attention to the news last September, you probably heard about a report by a research team at Stanford University that went viral, proclaiming that there are no nutritional benefits to eating organic food. Various media outlets blasted headlines such as “Why Organic Food May Not Be Healthier for You” and “Organic Food Is No Healthier than Conventional Food.” The media blitz may have left you wondering whether it’s worth it to spend the extra money on organics. We’re here to tell you that it is, and to give you a bunch of good reasons why.
Consider that, despite its publicity, there are many reasons not to take the Stanford study as the final word on the nutrition of organics. Published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the paper narrowly defined health as vitamin content. In fact, Stanford’s own research found that eating organic food reduces our exposure to both pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria—obvious health benefits by almost any standard.
The paper didn’t break ground with new research, but rather analyzed a select group of studies comparing organic vs conventional industrial food. Numerous experts have noted that the study was too narrow in focus and have worked to expose the study’s questionable funding and ties to the large-scale agriculture and biotechnology industries. In addition, they question why the results of many important studies were omitted from the Stanford data.
One study excluded from the paper was a meta-analysis out of the Human Nutrition Research Center in the United Kingdom, which found that increased nitrogen in the soil (conventional farming relies on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer) reduces the number of defense-related compounds—such as vitamin C—in fruits and vegetables. Compared with conventional produce, organic produce contains, on average, about 12 percent more of these nutrients, which the researchers say would be equivalent to increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables by the same 12 percent. Another significant study whose results were excluded was one out of the University of Barcelona that found organic tomatoes contain more antioxidants than conventionally grown tomatoes.
Shortly after the Stanford study was published, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) undertook an extensive analysis of the existing scientific evidence about organic food. The AAP analysis confirmed that eating an organic diet could reduce children’s exposure to both pesticides and drug-resistant bacteria. However, they also emphasize that the most important thing is that children eat a wide range of produce regardless of whether it’s organic, noting that no large human studies have specifically addressed whether reduced exposure to pesticide residues on produce benefits health.
But pesticide exposure has been linked to numerous cancers (brain, breast, colon, lung, ovarian, kidney, pancreatic, stomach and testicular), as well as to nervous system damage; reproductive and metabolic problems; diabetes; obesity; several of the neurological diseases of aging; and other chronic illnesses. Children, whose brains are still developing, are especially susceptible. A study funded by the EPA has shown that children who switch to eating organic food get “dramatic and immediate” reduced exposure to pesticides. The levels of two organophosphate pesticides in children’s urine decreased to nondetectable levels immediately after the introduction of organic diets. Today, approximately 1,400 pesticides are approved for use in the United States by the EPA.
Environmental researcher Charles Benbrook estimates that switching to organic food production would reduce our overall exposure to pesticides by 97 percent. His report, “Simplifying the Pesticide Risk Equation,” concludes that the switch would lead to more full-term births, fewer underweight babies, reduced rates of birth defects and significant benefits for developing immune, reproductive and nervous systems. He says the benefits of avoiding pesticide exposure begin about six months before conception and continue throughout life.
Animals raised organically are less likely to be contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria because organic farmers are prohibited from administering antibiotics except in cases of medical necessity. Contrast that with industrial farmers—the vast majority in North America—who routinely give animals low doses of antibiotics for nonmedical benefits such as stimulating the animals’ growth, although this practice poses serious consequences to human health.
Antibiotics are critical for protecting public health. The inappropriate use of antibiotics, combined with overprescription, of antibiotics threatens their efficacy in fighting human illness. The use of low doses for nonmedical benefits—ubiquitous in the factory farms that comprise most of our meat production—leads to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on farms, which can quickly spread into the general population.
GRACE, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing public awareness of the relationships among food, water and energy systems, explains it thus: “Similar to how immunization helps the human body fight disease by exposing the immune system to small amounts of a virus or bacteria, when bacteria are continually exposed to small amounts of antibiotics they can develop immunity to them…These are called ‘resistant bacteria’ because they have adapted to the point where antibiotics are no longer an effective means of killing them. As a result, some antibiotics have lost their effectiveness against specific infectious diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year in the United States almost 2 million people acquire bacterial infections in hospitals, 70 percent of which are resistant to at least one commonly used antibiotic.”
In 2011, the FDA took its first steps toward reducing the amount of antibiotics used in farming, calling the agricultural use of the antibiotic cephalosporin “a serious health threat” to humans. Buying food from producers who eschew the widespread overuse of antibiotics can directly reduce antibiotic resistance in the bacteria that make people sick.
Not all organic food is nutritionally superior to conventionally grown food—but some of it is. The Stanford study compared, literally, apples to apples—one variety grown conventionally compared with the same variety grown organically. But organic farmers’ ability to sell locally makes them more likely to grow nutritionally superior varieties because they don’t have to choose varieties that will remain viable in shipping containers and on supermarket shelves for extended periods of time. Growers who must prioritize shelf life and durability often end up sacrificing nutritional quality.
Donald R. Davis, a retired nutrition scientist from the University of Texas, has studied the nutrient decline in wheat varieties over the past 50 years as farmers have transitioned to industrial methods. “Beginning about 1960, selective breeding and modern production methods gradually increased wheat yields by about threefold,” Davis says. Meanwhile nutrient concentrations have been dramatically slashed. Because industrial farming robs soil of nutrients, some of today’s wheat varieties have half as much protein and substantially fewer phytochemicals than earlier varieties, Davis says. Because they don’t have to focus almost solely on yield, organic farmers can choose varieties of wheat specifically because they are rich in high-quality protein.
Another area of the food sector in which organic techniques do yield nutritionally superior food is meat, eggs and dairy. The food an animal eats directly affects the nutritional content of its meat or milk. Grass-fed (also known as pasture-raised) organic meat, eggs and dairy offer a wide range of health benefits over conventionally raised livestock (including conventionally raised organic): Grass-fed meat and eggs are lower in fat, calories and cholesterol; contain healthier fats and fatty acids; and have been found to be higher in several vitamins (read about numerous studies confirming these findings at eatwild.com/healthbenefits.htm).
Conventional industrial farming practices are detrimental to the health of soil, air, water and wildlife, something that matters to our collective health as much as or more than the nutrient levels of organic or nonorganic apples.
If our soils are farmed intensively for one crop and sprayed with chemicals that kill even beneficial forms of life, the food grown in them ends up nutritionally deficient. In a landmark study, Davis and a team of University of Texas researchers compared the nutritional content of 43 fruits and vegetables based on the USDA’s data from 1950 and 1999. They found “reliable declines” in the levels of calcium, iron, phosphorus, protein, riboflavin and vitamin C. They report that there are likely declines in other nutrients such as magnesium, zinc and vitamins B6 and E, but there is no data on those nutrients from 1950. A combination of lifeless soil and agricultural practices aimed at improving traits other than nutrition (for example, yield) are the likeliest culprits. The Organic Consumers Association has compiled similar data, and concludes that the key to healthier food is healthier soil—soil that is regularly replenished with organic compost, in which crops are rotated to use and replenish nutrients in a cycle, in which beneficial insects and other lifeforms are allowed to play their vital role in soil health.
The U.S. food system creates at least 7 percent of the nation’s global warming emissions, according to a conservative estimate from the EPA. Many experts bring that figure closer to 25 or 30 percent when the various arms of agriculture, such as the manufacture of pesticides and the impact of food transportation, are factored in.
Toxic fertilizer and farm waste runoff is also responsible for a devastating amount of water pollution every year. For example, an Environmental Working Group report on water quality in one important agricultural state, Iowa, found that 60 to 98 percent of the stream segments evaluated had “poor” or “very poor” quality water. The two pollutants responsible for most of the contamination were two hallmarks of industrial farming: nitrogen and phosphorus. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in our waterways make it dangerous for the humans who need to drink it and the wildlife that need to live in it. Every year, scientists measure the extent of deadness in a massive area of the Gulf of Mexico. A stretch of the Gulf is so contaminated by agricultural fertilizers that all organisms requiring oxygen to survive cannot be found anywhere in sight. As of 2010, the dead zone was the size of Massachusetts.
Farm waste runoff also contaminates our waterways with dangerous toxins such as coliform bacteria, E. coli and other nasties found in animal manure. Healthy bodies of water should be able to assimilate small amounts of contamination, but the quantities that pour out of large-scale factory farms can be too much for most of these natural ecosystems to fight.
Large-scale ecosystem damage has other far-ranging consequences, as well. The spraying of pesticides, for example, often destroys pollinator populations. Without our pollinators, many of our favorite foods could not be grown. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Keeping bee populations safe is critical for keeping American tables stocked with high-quality produce and our agriculture sector running smoothly.” They report that more than $15 billion per year in U.S. crops are pollinated by bees.
What we might not want to pay for at the grocery store now—higher prices for higher-quality food—we will most surely pay for later.
What does the organic label ensure?
■ Organic food has been certified by the USDA as having been produced through approved methods “that
integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.”
■ All organic food must be grown without synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, drugs and hormones.
■ Organic meat and dairy producers may not administer antibiotics to animals except in cases of medical necessity.
■ Organic food cannot be irradiated or genetically engineered. Learn more about genetically modified ingredients and foods in the article The Truth About GMOs.
NOTE: Some organic farmers forgo certification because it is too costly and can be complicated. In that case, the only way to know is to ask, a perk of shopping directly from farmers whenever you can.
New York Times food writer and author Mark Bittman points out the flaw in the Stanford study’s definition of “nutritious” as “containing more vitamins” rather than “promoting health and good condition.” “By which standard,” he writes, “you can claim that, based on nutrients, Frosted Flakes are a better choice than an apple. But they’re not.” To learn more about why the study so egregiously missed the mark, browse this collection of expert responses.
1. Grow your own: It doesn’t get more local than your front yard—and buying seeds or seedlings will yield a greater return on your investment than buying pricey organic grocery store tomatoes and herbs.
2. Befriend a farmer: Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs enable you to get fresh, local food for a weekly subscription price, which is often very affordable. You might also be able to get deals on excess produce through farmers you meet at your farmers’ market.
3. Eat in season: Seasonal produce is abundant produce, and abundant produce is cheap produce.Plan meals around what you find in big stacks at the farmers’ market or grocery store.
4. Shop smart: Don’t ever buy more than your family can eat, and consider planning exactly what you will eat in advance. For most fresh produce, only buy quantities you can eat or plan to freeze or preserve within a few days’ time.
5. Preserve it: Canning, drying, freezing and fermenting are all easy, cost-effective ways to preserve organic food from your garden or farmers’ market when it’s abundant, so that you’re able to enjoy it the rest of the year (when it costs more).
Tabitha Alterman is the food and garden editor of Mother Earth Living. She thinks organic farmers are our country’s heroes.