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An uproar over organic

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As you know, we carry a bunch of feeds from other sites that might be of interest to you all. The ScienceDaily posts are the most frequent, and I usually can’t keep up with them. Their headline about organic food having  “little evidence of health benefits” did grab my attention however. The Stanford study that prompted it got a lot of coverage elsewhere; an NPR report prompted a flood of angry responses, and a New York Times op-ed by Roger Cohen praising it got a stinging retort from Donna DeViney of Soilent Greens in which she calls him an elitist halfwit among many other things.

The response to Stanford’s study from almost everyone I know has been the same—a big, ringing “so what.” Gardeners don’t grow produce without chemicals because they think it has more vitamins. As DeViney states:

Spraying Roundup is easy. Mulching and hoeing in the hot Texas sun on this little patch of organic acreage is way freaking harder. But we find it worth the extra work to not develop tumors, disease, genetic defects, or the sense that we’re above it all, out here in the actual dirt…You know, where food comes from.

And, of course, taste is never mentioned in the study. Homegrown produce—which is generally organic—just tastes better, as do the vegetables from our area organic farms. I never thought organic food being “good for you” had anything to do with nutrition; I thought the label was more about what the food didn’t have, in terms of pesticides and other chemicals.

Studies like these don’t weigh very much when put in the scale against common sense. I get that there has to be research, but each individual study only tells  part of the story. Unfortunately, when a small (and somewhat irrelevant) piece of the puzzle receives such widespread distribution—and then gets distorted further in pieces like the Times—you have to wonder if the research has any benefit whatever.

Posted by

Elizabeth Licata
on September 10, 2012 at 7:40 am, in the category Eat This, Ministry of Controversy.


  1. So there are organic gardening cranks in the US as much as here in UK. The organic gardening fraternity who get their misinformation from fellow gardening cranks and believe everything they are told have never managed to grasp the fact that whether plant nutrient is applied as organic or inorganic the plant can only take the nutrient up as inorganic chemical compounds. Organic nutrient has to be converted to inorganic compounds by soil bacteria before the plant can use it. By the time the nutrient is being absorbed by the plant it is the same whether from organic or inorganic sources. Therefore there is no way an organic vergetable or fruit or whatever can be any way more nutritious or healthy than one grown inorganically. Organic based pesticides (organophosphates eg Pyrethrum) are just as deadly if used incorrectly so eating crops sprayed with organic pesticides is also no healthier than pesticides divised in laboritories from chemistry research and development. I am a former professional gardener.

  2. Collin, I think a big difference is that in the organic garden, pesticides are used as a last resort; in the conventionally-grown garden, pesticides are used as prevention. An organic gardener has to pay more attention to the soil, to the environment he/she is growing food in, to work with nature to keep crops healthy. The conventional gardener seems at war with the outdoors.

  3. Colin, I don’t disagree that a plant will ingest vitamins and minerals only as an inorganic byproduct of micro-organisms. I do take some exception to your wholesale dismissal of the benefits of applying those undiminshed vitamins and minerals in a more environmentally friendly way. The biggest difference between an organic and an inorganic fertilizer lies in the delivery system. Those nutrients attached to synthetic or petroleum based products will be absorbed eventually by a hungry plant, but many times, those synthetics remain persistent in the surrounding soils. Their presence often disrupts or eliminates the natural processes that you so readily dismiss.

  4. Whereas I agree there are lots of benefits to growing organic produce irrespective of nutrition, I am annoyed, as a population health scientist, by the public reaction to the results of this important and well conducted study. The investigation in question was not about taste or environmental issues; it was about the levels of nutrients in organic compared to non-organic vegetables. It’s important to remember that the organic food industry is just that; an industry concerned only with making money, and for a long time now making completely unfounded claims about organic food being more nutritious. It’s important that we know that organic veg is not more nutritious than non-organic veg, as many people are spending a fortune on organic produce, even thinking that it would be wrong to feed their children anything else, under this false premise sold to them by the food industry. The question now is whether there is any real evidence for the contribution of environmental toxins in sprays and fertilizer to public health and disease. I suspect there may be some evidence, but either way, we will need to use an objective scientific approach to find out. Science is not the enemy here.

  5. Quote:
    “The question now is whether there is any real evidence for the contribution of environmental toxins in sprays and fertilizer to public health and disease.”

  6. Studies like this confound me. If you don’t start with the right question, your study will be worthless. I think they really got the premise wrong in this one. Too bad.

  7. John, it’s kind of like the issue with GMOs & their pollen, it’s called wind drift. Unless the organic farm/s can be in an isolated valley all their own and downwind from no Industrial Ag Operation, there no doubt will be something being detected. Even for a home gardener unfortunately.

  8. The actual concerns people have which were not at all addressed, actual true purpose and timing of this study were suspicious to me when it first came out a few days ago. While I live way over in frozen Timbuktu Sweden where most things have to be imported anyway(because we can’t grow much anything without greenhouses) , I am still aware from reading the News over there of the political fight that will be waged in November over labeling whether or not something is GMO or NOT. And it’s not just fresh produce folks want labeled, but even the usual processed things like Chips, Breads and so forth.

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