As can be seen from the popularity of rip-off artists like Whole Foods markets, organic foods are popular. The U.S. market for organic produce alone was $12.4 billion last year.
Some of the devotion from consumers attains almost cult-like status, which is why a recent article by Stanford University researchers that was dismissive of health or nutritional benefits of organic foods created such a furor.
The study, by researchers in the university’s Center for HealthPolicy and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was a meta-analysis in which results from the scientific literature were combined but no new, original laboratory work was conducted. Data from 237 studies were aggregated and analyzed to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than non-organic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for “organic” were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts, nor were those foods less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella.
The investigators themselves were surprised by the result. “When we began this project, we thought that there would likely be some findings that would support the superiority of organics over conventional food,” according to physician Dr. Dena Bravata.
Many devotees of organic foods purchase them in order to avoid exposure to harmful levels of pesticides. But that’s a poor rationale: Although non-organic fruits and vegetables do have more pesticide residue, more than 99 percent of the time the levels are below the permissible, very conservative safety limits set by regulators – limits that are established by the Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the Food and Drug Administration.
Ironically, the designation “organic” is itself a synthetic construct of bureaucrats that makes little sense. It prohibits the use of synthetic chemical pesticides – although there is a lengthy list of exceptions listed in the Organic Foods Production Act – but permits most “natural” ones (and also allows the application of pathogen-laden animal excreta as fertilizer).
These permitted pesticides can be toxic. As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in a September 2012 Scientific American article (“Are lower pesticide residues a good reason to buy organic? Probably not.”): “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones. No matter what anyone tells you, organic pesticides don’t just disappear. Rotenone is notorious for its lack of degradation, and copper sticks around for a long, long time. Studies have shown that copper sulfate, pyrethrins, and rotenone all can be detected on plants after harvest—for copper sulfate and rotenone, those levels exceeded safe limits. One study found such significant rotenone residues in olives and olive oil to warrant ‘serious doubts…about the safety and healthiness of oils extracted from [fruits] treated with rotenone.’” (There is a well-known association between rotenone exposure and Parkinson’s Disease.)
There is another important but unobvious point about humans’ ingestion of pesticides: The vast majority of pesticidal substances that we consume occur in our diets “naturally,” and they are present in organic foods as well as conventional ones. In a landmark research article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues found that “99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. Only 52 natural pesticides have been tested in high-dose animal cancer tests, and about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present in many common foods.”
The bottom line of Ames’ experiments: “Natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests. We also conclude that at the low doses of most human exposures the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.”
In other words, consumers who buy overpriced organic foods in order to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on 0.01% of the pesticides they consume.
There seems to be confusion about these issues even at the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), which in October released a report that appeared to endorse organic produce because of its lower levels of pesticide residues, while at the same time admitting, “in the long term, there is currently no direct evidence that consuming an organic diet leads to improved health or lower risk of disease.”
Perhaps the most illogical tenet of organic farming is the exclusion of “genetically engineered” plants – but only if they were modified with the newest, best, most precise and predictable techniques. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another – often as a result of seeds being irradiated or genes being moved from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature. But because genetic engineering is more precise and predictable, the technology is at least as safe as – and often safer than – the modification of food products in cruder, “conventional” ways that can qualify as organic.
There are examples of new varieties of plants, including two varieties each of potatoes and squash and one of celery, that have sickened or killed consumers, but all of these were the result of conventional genetic modification – which would qualify for organic farming.
The organic community remains unswayed by either biology or history, however, and modern genetic engineering remains prohibited from organic agriculture. This bias against genetic engineering in organic agriculture makes recommendations such as those of the American Association of Pediatrics especially dubious because as genetically engineered “biofortified” foods with enhanced levels of vitamins, antioxidants and so on appear, none of them will be available to organophiles.
Another rationale for buying organic is that it’s supposedly better for the natural environment. But the low yields of organic agriculture – typically 20-50 percent lower than conventional agriculture – impose various stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption. A British meta-analysispublished in September of this year in the Journal of Environmental Management identified some of the environmental stresses that were higher in organic, as opposed to conventional, agriculture: “ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems,” as was “land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.”