Flash in the pan 

Clearing up the organic panic

The way headlines broke around a recent Stanford study comparing organic and conventionally grown foods, you'd think organic had been left for dead.

The New York Times, for example, announced that "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce." Maybe the doubt was inferred from the meta-study's lukewarm synopsis: "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."

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Now wait a minute. It's true that ideologues can attribute positive benefits to whatever they want, but organic food has never been seriously touted as more nutritious or vitamin-rich than conventional food.

Organic has always been defined by what it isn't, and its first rule of organic food is that it's free of things like "pesticide residues" and "antibiotic-resistant bacteria." The study confirms what organic supporters have long purported to be the case: Organic food is less adulterated by things you don't want in your food.

The organic watchdog group Cornucopia Institute called the Stanford study "biased." Several of the authors are fellows and affiliates of Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute, which has received funding from big ag companies, including Cargill.

The study synthesized the results of 237 previously conducted studies that had compared nutrient and pesticide residue levels in organic and conventional food. While residue levels were compared with the Environmental Protection Agency's allowable levels (they mostly complied), Cornucopia complained that it did not discuss any of the specific dangers posed by pesticides, such as a 2010 study in the journal Pediatrics that found children with organophosphate pesticides in their systems were more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

Another organophosphate pesticide is chlorpyrifos, which also poses a risk to the brains of children, especially via prenatal exposure. Once widely used as a residential roach-killer, chlorpyrifos was banned for home use by the EPA in 2001. The chemical, known by its Dow trade name Lorsban, is still permitted for agricultural use on fruit trees and vegetables. According to the EPA, 10 million pounds of it is applied annually in the United States.

The regulation of chlorpyrifos, like that of most chemicals, has not been consistent over the years. It's now more strictly controlled than it used to be, and it's possible that someday it will be more heavily regulated than it is today. In fact, the EPA announced in July that it plans to require reductions in chlorpyrifos application rates and apply additional rules designed to protect children and other bystanders from exposure in agricultural applications and others. The agency expects to make a final decision in 2014, with implementation to follow. Until then, families in rural towns where farm workers live will continue to expose their children to doses of a neurotoxin that we're pretty sure will soon be illegal.

Chlorpyrifos has recently been found to stunt development more in males than females. A study conducted in New York City and published in the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology found that while both boy and girl IQ scores were lower following exposure, boys' brains were especially affected.

The study used umbilical cord blood drawn at birth to assess exposure levels in babies born before and after the EPA's 2001 ban on residential use of chlorpyrifos. As expected, exposure levels dropped following the ban.

Clearly, we're still learning about the effects of chlorpyrifos on people, not to mention untargeted organisms like amphibians, or the ecosystems these creatures belong to. Chlorpyrifos is just one of more than 1,400 pesticides regulated by the EPA.

While the danger of any given pesticide is constant, how it's regulated is changeable. Unfortunately, lobbyists and political appointees who might be neither concerned nor educated about pesticides can have undue influence over if, when and how they're used. Given our slowly evolving scientific understanding of pesticide chemicals, and the glacial pace of political change, the Stanford study results support the idea that eating organic reduces exposure to things we may someday realize are bad for us, as well as things that we now know are bad.

Had the Stanford study shown higher nutrient levels in organic food, you could be sure the organic industry would be parading those results like the Greeks dragging Hector's body around Troy. But if differences in nutrient content are what we want to look for, in my opinion we should compare nutrient levels of food grown on small, crop-diverse family farms with food grown in large monocultures. The Stanford study compared the nutrient levels largely between organic factory farms and conventional factory farms. I'd like to see factory farm versus family farm. Practices common on small, integrated farms—like composting, crop rotation and mulching—tend to build richer-than-average soil. It would be interesting to compare nutrition levels in small farms that do these things with large farms that don't.

Still, nutrient levels are just one part of the debate on sustainable and fair agriculture. To many in the sustainable food movement, factory-farmed organic, such as what you get at Whole Foods, is an imperfect compromise. As a wise farmer once told me, "Most 'big organic' food is still grown by exploited brown people on massive monocultures—just without chemicals."

The Stanford report concludes with the kind of self-contradictory statement that embodies the general confusion the study has generated: "The evidence does not suggest marked health benefits from consuming organic versus conventional foods, although organic produce may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and organic chicken and pork may reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

In other words, organic isn't any better, but it might be less worse. Well, all right. But if the Stanford team's idea of health includes pesticide residues and antibiotic resistant bacteria in my system, I'd hate to meet its criteria for sick.

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