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Is Buying Organic a Farce? Study Gives Food for Thought

While a recent study indicates spending more on organic food may be a waste of money, there is always a high price to lower cost.

The Stanford study published earlier this month—entitled Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review—confronted the common misconception that organic foods are more nutritious.

Thanks for clearing that up, scientists! For years I’ve been going around thinking that by simply omitting some toxic chemicals, farmers were creating superfoods chock full of nutrients and vitamins lacking in their watery and flavorless counterparts.

The fact is, I don’t know anyone who was ever under the impression that they were getting more vitamin bang for their bucks, other than perhaps the researchers who conducted the much discussed study.

A close friend of mine buys only organic and no, she’s not some rich rock star prima donna living life on high in the Hollywood hills. A full-time mom of an autistic 4-year-old who suffers from a host of food allergies, she subsists on a single income earned by her husband.  

For her, the revelation of the study is no revelation at all, because by picking premium produce, she believes that she is limiting her son’s exposure to the kinds of environmental factors that may have contributed to some of his conditions in the first place, many of which require expensive medicines and treatments.

While they are not prescribing organic food, his doctors agree that his ailments are directly rooted in his diet, necessitating a need for whole foods.

Higher food prices have caused her to question how much organic food items she can afford—they are often double their conventional counterparts—but she still feels the cost of organic is worth it.

And she is not alone. The organic food industry in America has mushroomed into a billion dollar industry in recent years, fueled by others seeking a relief from the inundation of unneeded, unwanted and often unhealthy additives in our food.

Past studies have linked growth hormones used in cows for increased milk production to earlier onsets of puberty for children. Food “products” which have had the life processed right out of them have become the mainstay for struggling families.

Due a dependence on cheap food lacking nutrition, members of that socioeconomic class are more likely than affluent neighbors to have higher rates of diet-based diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular ailments and obesity.

Even the conclusion of the Stanford study finds that although “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.”

The study itself shows the merits of going organic, but they far surpass simply limiting exposure to harmful pesticides, with far-reaching implications extending to the quality of life, land and even communities.

Many suspect toxic chemicals sprayed on foods as the culprits when it comes to the prevalence of cancer in our society, but also highly suspect are the pollutants in air and water stemming from agricultural run-off.

The mass-farming industry, propped up artificially by the use of unsustainable amounts of petroleum used not only in the gas tanks of machinery but also in the very pesticides used to protect crops, is an inherently flawed system.

Not only does it destroy the evolution of local ecosystems by reducing vast fields to a single staple, but it also introduces the liquefied death of eons ago into the web of life, often with harmful side effects for the natural world.

It wasn’t always that way and due to limited resources, it really can’t go on that way. But there is a better way: organic farming.

The debate wages on whether organic farming can really feed the world, but there’s no doubt that organic farming is better for the land and, in turn, us. There are several different approaches to doing so, one of the most promising of which is the permaculture method in which farms mimic nature by raising several crops.

Instead of a traditional field razed bare, blighting the land like a monotone scab, permaculture gardens look like the wild wonderlands primitive hunter and gatherers would have been stoked to happen upon while foraging. The hunter gatherer system was a proven success, until agricultural and industrial revolutions propelled populations into unsustainable levels.

But if every neighborhood had such a garden, not only could we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but fossil foods as well—the food items that are steeped in chemicals and travel an estimated 1500 miles to end up on your dinner plate.    

Even as 40 percent of food in America ends up in the dumpster, a huge segment of the Earth’s population goes to bed hungry every night and a disproportionate number of those are children, including right here in this country. But permaculture activists believe we can change that.

Furthermore, even the U.S. government has noted that farmers markets, which specialize in organic fare, contribute to an overall sense of unity among community members. The open air style of farmers markets encourage a sense of social cohesiveness, like the office water cooler but on a larger, healthier scale where people can connect, bond and share their stories.

The recent trend in community gardens is likewise bringing neighbors together in a common pursuit.

Yes, buying organic can be expensive. But the same people who recoil at the price often spend exorbitant amounts on brand name clothing, i-Phones, nice cars and other non-necessities that don't even go into the most precious systems of all--our own bodies.

Far from being a luxury item average income-earners should shun, the multitudinous merits of an organic system aren't only worth the high cost--they're priceless. Of course, it's not in everyone's means to exclusively shop organic, but it doesn't hurt to hit the local farmers market once in awhile and support a healthy habit that nourishes society and helps it flourish.

The side effects of sustainable farming are as numerous as the side effects of conventional farming, but like the fruits they produce, organic practices tend to yield a sweeter harvest. 

Mitzi Shpak September 22, 2012 at 02:15 PM
This Stanford 'study' is not original research, it is what is known as a 'mega study', which simply means that they have compiled other studies and reached a conclusion based on previous research. The authors have already apologized for leaving out a study of organic strawberries that concluded a much greater benefit. One must also understand the politics of funding these studies --- there is far more money for research available from the companies that make & use pesticides and herbicides than there is for unbiased studies of the benefits of organic food. So, if you gather all the studies done and run the metrics you are always going show a statistical bias toward not so much benefit from organics. This mega study simply demonstrates an artifact of funding and statistics and is not necessarily representative of scientific fact. As a Caltech biologist I am surprised that Stanford would stand behind this study and allow its name and reputation to add credibility to a skewed conclusion.
Marjo Garrison September 22, 2012 at 03:08 PM
Although buying only organic is out if my budget, I do follow environmental working group's list of "dirty dozen and clean 15" which is an annual list of the foods that need to be organic or not eaten at all or can safely be eaten conventionally grown. Take a look at www.ewg.org for a wealth of non biased information.
Natalie Ragus (Editor) September 22, 2012 at 03:21 PM
Marjo, that is an awesome resource! Thanks for sharing! Yeah, I don't feel the need to pay twice the sticker price to buy fruits such as a bananas, which have a thick skin pesticides would not likely penetrate, but I buy organic apples.
Simon Lee September 22, 2012 at 03:57 PM
This study was published as a shot against California Proposition 37 which will be voted upon this November. The study was, as pointed out in this article, pretty useless when you read it on its face. But consider its real purpose and the objective becomes a lot more clear.
GMO free September 22, 2012 at 04:02 PM
We buy organic foods because they r free of carcenogenic pesticides and are not genetically modified, not because we think they have anymore nutrients in them. DUH
J.G. Wentworth September 22, 2012 at 04:41 PM
I came from Google News and I was expecting a fox news style hit piece for some reason. Pleasantly surprised. The whole "organics don't have more nutrients than non-organics" Is nothing but a straw man argument. Most people buy organics because they don't want a gut full of pesticides. And a lot of people are concerned about gmo product's long term health effects(if any).
Ken Rubenstein September 22, 2012 at 06:20 PM
Stanford gets big bucks from Monsanto and Cargill, so their objectivity is seriously in question. Second, almost nobody buys organic because they think it's more nutritious. They buy to minimize pesticide exposure, which the study didn't cover except to say that non-organics fall within federal guidelines, which were written under industry influence to fit the levels they have rather levels proven safe after multiple exposures over periods of decades. Worthless garbage study.
Rob matlock September 22, 2012 at 06:31 PM
I question "the doctors agree that his ailments(autism) are directly related to his diet." This is the kind of bogus, misinformed, unsupported claim that prevents real research on autism from making progress, and terrifies parents into doing things that raise false hopes.
marvinlzinn September 22, 2012 at 06:32 PM
When I could afford only one dollar per meal (not including my own garden in summer) I ate only organic if I could find it, and just ate less. (I did not have to worry about gaining weight.) Organic food is LESS expensive, because it costs a lot less for medical care. I have proven this with my life in the last 40 years.
marvinlzinn September 22, 2012 at 06:38 PM
I don't care what scientists or doctors say about this, it is obvious that organic is a lot better for health. To put it simple: God created everything perfect; and any modification is a defect. Most of the changes are done for money (more profits for manufacturers and lower price for ignorant customers). 1 Timothy 6:10 "Love of money is the root of all evil. . . ."
Christi Durden September 22, 2012 at 07:53 PM
Sadly, research has too often become a tool of the companies paying for it. And even more sadly, academic research is being swayed as well. I work at a world class cancer research facility and I see and hear those biases every day. I'm fortunate that I can afford organic foods for myself. I'm also very grateful that I live in an area where local, organic, small farms are supported. Thanks for succinctly pointing out the flaws here. Most people don't understand what they're getting from their foods or their research.
Gary Way September 22, 2012 at 08:26 PM
There was a time when we fed the entire world with organics- not that long ago really- up until 1945. Then we began using left over bomb nitrites to keep those factories open and never went back. The Stanford Organic study put-down has dark roots to Cargill and Monsanto. http://globalwarming-way2ski.blogspot.com/2012/09/stanford-put-down-of-organic-food-has.html
randy pagan September 22, 2012 at 08:42 PM
As long as we also admit that we are paying extra for a 'feeling" that we wish to feel and not acting like we are actually doing something thats actually scientifically been proven ,then I am all for it. Just remember that there has NEVER been any link between pesticides or additives and autism. and that many of you are getting advice from people who NEVER studied and have no background in this field and ,for some reason, you have decided to reject the findings of all the people qualified to actually speak on the subject.
Shaun September 22, 2012 at 09:07 PM
The fact that you think a meta-analysis is a "mega study" puts your academic credibility in serious doubt
Mitzi Shpak September 22, 2012 at 09:19 PM
In the author's comments in the news they referred to it as a 'mega study'. If you notice, all the press releases and news reports call it a 'study' -- perhaps you ought to make sure they correct that error.
Peter Burmeister September 22, 2012 at 09:53 PM
Don't eat bananas, which have to be shipped thousands of miles to your local store. Purchase locally grown fruits and vegetable from your local farmer, or if you live in a city, at the farmer's markets. It's not that difficult to eat almost entirely locally grown natural foods. And almost everyone can have a garden. Dig up a portion of your lawn to grow your own food, and find a community plot if you're a city dweller; every city has them. It's fun, the food tastes fantastic, and your dollars stay local.
Michelle Valadez September 22, 2012 at 10:37 PM
Since Stanford has Monsanto ties this research means absolutely nothing.
Shaun September 22, 2012 at 11:43 PM
Anyone who knows anything about science and research knows what a meta-analysis is (including its use which is to increase statistical power by pooling data from several smaller studies) and knows that there is no such thing as a "mega-study". Stanford's own press release (http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html) appropriately refers to it as a meta-analysis, so I have no idea what you're talking about. My point about your academic bona fides remains unchallenged and true. Making such a basic and major mistake makes any of your "analysis" about this study irrelevant.
Shaun September 23, 2012 at 12:01 AM
And someone who is the executive director of an organization committed to removing pesticides from school lunches (which by the way I am completely in favor of and has nothing to do with anything) should really tone down the "bias" argument when arguing against the scientific merits of this article.
Mitzi Shpak September 23, 2012 at 12:39 AM
Here's a real meta-analysis that came to the opposite conclusion: Agroecosystem management and nutritional quality of plant foods: The case of organic fruits and vegetables (2011) http://www.ncl.ac.uk/afrd/research/publication/168871 Shaun --my name and credentials are out there for anyone to google -- I am Exec. Dir. of Action Now and have been on the Integrated Pest Management Team at LAUSD for 13 yrs-- we implemented the LAUSD's IPM policy to remove the most toxic pesticides from being used in pest management (no jurisdiction over school lunches). For 10yrs. I have been in the Biology Dept. at Caltech where I worked in the lab of Nobel Laureate Edward B. Lewis. I did my internship on the Human Genome Project at Caltech, I also worked in cancer research at City of Hope and at The Institute for Genomic Research at USC (now Keck) School of Medicine. You can also find my presentations for the CDC's Environmental Public Health Tracking Project and Howard University on the State of Environmental Justice Today. ---Google search "mega study organic" and see how the Stanford paper was reported in the press. I know what a meta-analysis is --- but when I am speaking/writing outside of academia, I use the vernacular (as it was reported in the press) --- it is more important to be understood than to be nerdly precise. ---and your credentials are? Your full name is?
James Cooper September 23, 2012 at 02:14 AM
So what exactly is the point of this rambling commentary? The Stanford study was published in a peer-reviewed journal. It would seem to have significant merit. There is no peer-reviewed evidence linking autism to pesticides, and in fact there is significant evidence that the amount of pesticide residue is orders of magnitude below any toxic threshold, even if consumed daily. The study was carried out without any external support, so linking it to Monsanto is specious.
Ellie M. September 23, 2012 at 02:52 AM
While sciencific studies have been flooded by propaganda studies (by big Pharma & other 800 lb gorillas in the processed food industry, not to mention land developers who put commercial interests before environmental safety), and we could argue the source of conditions like autism and cancer and more: in the end it all boils down to the marketing campaigns and whether we are consuming what they are selling us. Organic food should never cost more than processed food stuff and chemicals. It costs less to take whole food to market than to ship it to a plant, splice and centrifuge it, change its molecular structure, add shelflife extending chemicals, redye to make it resemble the food it is supposed to look like, reflavor it to taste like it might be that food, inject vitamins and nutrients that no longer exist in it, and on and on. Why the hell are we paying more for organic? The labeling and FDA approval process is why. It is designed to supress the organic food system, to prevent it from competing effectively. If the sources of distribution are restricted, and the cost of distribution raised, this allows the processed food to continue to dominate. This in turns stimulates the health industry (creating an endless pool of consumers of Big Pharma drugs). And as long as we are all willing to accept these "studies" as the authority on any product we are being Marketed, then we can only blame ourselves for the condition we find ourselves in. You are what you eat, after all.
Carl Grey September 23, 2012 at 05:02 AM
James, most every drug studied has no long term data so we don't know if they'll cause cancer, it's the same for chemicals used on our crops. We have no quality long term data on each product Cargill/Monsanto etc. produce. And how do you set up a study to show if they cause cancer? Feed people pesticides? Recently many reputable MD's have questioned the study protocol designs the FDA requires, no one is seriously questioning, in the govt, if these chemicals are safe for our foods. Would you spray Round-up on your garden?
Sharon Lank September 23, 2012 at 05:09 AM
Like arsenic in your rice, especially the carcinogenic inorganic kind? Don't buy organic.
Marvion September 23, 2012 at 08:24 AM
Not to be bought nor sold nor grown nor nobly yodeled//Organicruddyodelfoo// Organicruddyodelfoo// ah O’ (pronounced ‘organic cruddy yodel elf foo). Um food. Elf quit. I can’t yodel. And you ‘likeatingoodoughnuts’?
marvinlzinn September 23, 2012 at 09:00 AM
Ellie, Thank you for a good description. Lots of government actions pretending to protect us, only make things worse.
Jed Kircher September 23, 2012 at 10:16 AM
@Shaun: Is it meta-pwned, or mega-pwned? It's okay man. I'll take you out for Big Mac, and you can try to subvert the idea that clean locally grown seasonal foods are better for us another time.

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