Consumers who spend big bucks on organic foods naturally want to know what they’re getting for their money, and at first glance, a report this week by Stanford University health researchers seems to say, not much.
The report looked at dozens of previous studies on the health and nutritional effects of organic food, and concluded:
“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.”
This would seem to pose a threat to an organic food industry that the report pegged at $26.7 billion in 2010, up from $3.6 billion in 1997. Then again, the reaction among consumers seems muted or nonexistent, several organic farmers and advocates told me this week.
They are perturbed but not alarmed. Perturbed because the Stanford report looked at health effects far too narrowly, and, anyway, missed the whole point of the organic movement — it’s not about better nutrition, it’s about a healthier planet and a sustainable food system.
“One of the major things about organic is the holistic principles and practices,” said Bill Duesing, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Connecticut, and president of the 7-state NOFA council.
Duesing speculated that fallout from the report could make organic advocates’ jobs a bit harder, but should not change the way they educate the public.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever advocated that organic food is healthier for you,” said Duesing, himself an organic farmer in Oxford, where the NOFA chapter is based. “It’s not the main reason we’re doing it…organic is really working with nature, conventional agriculture is working against nature.”
It’s also about local food production, economic fairness and health for farm workers and creating a system that avoids nitrogen runoff, a major global threat to waterways. Duesing recently wrote a short essay on the advantages of organic, and it did not even mention healthier nutrition for consumers.
But in the long run, organic advocates say, there is a very real benefit for consumers’ health, as organic methods avoid pesticide residues and restore trace elements of minerals to the soil, perhaps improving the food that grows there.
The Stanford report, published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, assumes that federal guidelines on pesticides are in fact safe, an assumption challenged by the President’s Cancer Panel in 2010 — and by the common sense of anyone who follows the politics of regulation.
A rebuttal by Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook says, among other things, that the Stanford report ignored federal data on antibiotics and pesticides even as it concluded that there is less of those things in organic food.
And what about having lower pesticide levels? The Vermont-based Organic Trade Association went as far as to put out a press release with the headline, “Stanford research confirms health benefits driving consumers to organic.” Saying that’s what the report concludes takes some brass, to steal a phrase Bill Clinton used Wednesday night about Paul Ryan’s Medicare accusations.
But it isn’t wrong, and that’s part of the point: Healthy is a tricky word.
The more important distinction in the food supply is not organic vs. conventional, but big national producers vs. small local producers. The so-called natural foods industry is riled up these days over a class-action lawsuit against Kashi over its use of ingredients said to be hazardous or regulated as drugs. Kashi is owned by Kellogg Co.
I asked Duesing which he would choose if he had to eat organic food grown in China or conventional food produced here in Connecticut — where the options are expanding, with 82 organic farms as of 2008, according to an Aug. 30 story by my colleague Janice Podsada.
“I would go for the local Connecticut,” he said quickly, adding, “They’re both very important.”
At the West Hartford farmers’ market on Thursday, Kathy Caruso of Upper Forty Farm in Cromwell, known for her heirloom tomatoes, said she had not had a single query from a customer.
“I would venture to say that they buy my tomatoes because of the variety and because they taste good,” Caruso said. “To me, there’s no issue here. Vegetables are good for you.”
George Hall’s granddaughter, Brooke Lindstrom, said some customers have asked about the report. “The people that are really in organic are going to keep shopping here,” she said.
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