Marni Soupcoff: Stanford study shows organic food no safer or healthier than conventional foodMarni Soupcoff
Sep 5, 2012 12:16 PM ET
Last Updated: Sep 5, 2012
When a new study by doctors at Stanford University found that organic foods are not any healthier than conventional foods, Canada’s organic growers must have been at a loss.
What could they possibly say to the dreary news that paying big bucks for organic products actually provides no positive physical or nutritional benefits? Would the growers be humbled or embarrassed? Would they graciously admit the evidence that their products are no better for consumers than the less pricey non-organic varieties?
Well, what do you think?
No, the organic growers have chosen to react to the study by ignoring the elephant in the room — the finding that there’s no reason to believe organics are safer or more nutritious than conventional foods. Instead, they have rather bizarrely insisted that the study is a vindication of their products.
Here is the topsy turvy conclusion of Beth McMahon, who is executive director of Canadian Organic Growers: “I look at [the study] and I think they found only good things about organic food.” Ummm, okay. Not sure how organics’ failure to provide any health or food safety advantage is GOOD, but let’s follow her reasoning.
From behind her intensely rose-coloured glasses, Ms. McMahon tries to support her assessment by pointing out that the study found that organics reduce people’s exposure to pesticides. What she doesn’t point out is that the study found the “reduction” insignificant to people’s health because the pesticide levels in conventional foods are already so miniscule as to be harmless.
Ms. McMahon further bolsters her glass-half-full view of the study by noting that it did not find that organic foods were any LESS safe than conventional foods — which is hardly a ringing endorsement of her products. What are consumers supposed to think? “Oh, good! This organic food that has been costing me $250 more a month than my regular groceries is no more likely to kill me or my family than the conventional stuff was. I’m so glad I made the switch!”
The one point McMahon highlights from the study which is worth noting is that although organic meat is just as likely as conventional meat to be contaminated with bacteria (and the likelihood in both cases is low), when that contamination does occur, the germs found in conventional meats are 33% more likely to be resistant to multiple antibiotics than the germs found in organic meats.
On that small point, organics come out ahead. The problem for the organic industry is that this is truly the only score on which they offer a measurable advantage. And it’s an area that the conventional food industry could easily address by adopting a more responsible approach to antibiotic use in feed animals.
Fundamentally, what the choice to buy organic comes down to is a squishy, non-scientific desire to feel that what one is eating is wholesome and “natural,” even though there is no evidence that organic food is actually any more of either of those things than the alternative. In most instances, an organic purchase is the culmination of a mild pesticide phobia (most of us have one) and a vague but completely untested (and erroneous) belief that organic food contains more nutrients or less fat or is just simply BETTER.
But it’s not.
As the Stanford study shows, organic food is not safer or healthier for individual consumers than conventional food. And it’s not better for the environment, either. Organic farming is less productive than conventional farming — it produces lower crop yields and does not restore minerals like potassium and phosphorus to the soil the way conventional farming does through its use of inorganic fertilizers. That means organic farming requires far more land use for a far smaller payoff.
As Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine and Reason.com, has argued persuasively, there’s far more promise for reducing negative environmental impacts (not to mention effectively feeding the world) with no-till farming and genetically modified crops than there is with organic farming.
Mr. Bailey has quoted Cambridge chemist John Emsley, who said, “The greatest catastrophe that the human race could face this century is not global warming but a global conversion to ‘organic farming’ — an estimated 2 billion people would perish.”
It’s fine if individuals who can afford to pay more for a basket of organic peaches choose to do so because it gives them a pleasant feeling. But the Stanford study should be a reminder that there is no compelling reason to make “going organic” a wider policy objective. The advantages are negligible, if any. On the other hand, the disadvantages are huge. Driving up food prices (particularly for fresh produce) and driving down food supply causes measurable harm to the health and safety of the many around the world who can’t afford to indulge fuzzy notions of “natural goodness” just for the heck of it.
In an editorial Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times expressed its doubts that “the folks at Whole Foods are trembling in their Birkenstocks” as a result of the Stanford study.
I’m sure the Times is right. Which is fine. Why shouldn’t Whole Foods cater to a wealthy constituency that demands organics? The key is not to confuse that demand with evidence that organic actually means better.