Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

A Bit More on Organics

PH2009080501802.jpgGrist's Tom Philpott's latest post on the virtues of organics is here, and it contains a terrific capsule explanation of the tremendous contribution organics make toward healthier soil. There's much less, however, on whether they make healthier people. And that's because there are no studies proving that. At best, some studies funded by organic interests -- which doesn't make them wrong -- have detected slightly greater nutrient density in organic foods. Other studies -- 50 of which were reviewed, but not conducted, by the British Food Safety Agency -- failed to find a consistent advantage for organic products.

The bigger problem here is that it's not clear that slightly greater nutrient densities would actually have an impact on health. Even if organic produce were proved to have more nutrients, there's no guarantee that humans would see any benefit. Nutritionally enriched foods, for instance, don't do much for us; nor do multivitamins. We know fruits and vegetables are good for us, but we don't know exactly why. Nor do we know whether the chemicals and pesticides used in conventional produce have an adverse impact on long-term human health, at least in the quantities present in our diet. Remember that all those studies showing that people who eat fruits and vegetables are healthier than people who don't are relying on fruits and vegetables grown with pesticides, and nitrogen fertilizer, and all the rest of it.

As it is, I'm still not aware of any studies showing better health outcomes for organic consumers. Maybe they're yet to be conducted. Maybe Philpott's circumstantial cases around nitrates and pesticides will prove true. But maybe not. As of now, they don't show up in any observational or experimental data we have. From a public health perspective, I'm much more concerned with whether people consume fruits and vegetables than whether they consume organic fruits and vegetables.

That said, the evidence that organics are good for the environment, and the soil in particular, is very compelling. And the first part of Philpott's post is a very elegant explanation of why.

Photo credit: Sarah L. Voisin, Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  August 14, 2009; 7:03 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Tab Dump
Next: Pharma's Investment


You're comparing apples with oranges if you want to draw conclusions about USDA organic from British studies.

USDA Organic corresponds roughly to the minimum safety standards applicable in the EU. Organic in each member state is considerably higher, although varies in definition from state to state.

The relevant question for your purposes is whether European food is better for the health of consumers than "normal" American food.

Posted by: albamus | August 14, 2009 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Also, I'm not sure you've sufficiently acknowledged what the BFSA study fails to look at. As Marion Nestle's explains, the reason to eat organic is what's not in the food. This study didn't look at adverse health effects from pesticides.

Posted by: GrandArch | August 14, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Don't forget another important consideration: the effect of pesticides, fungicides, etc. on the health of agricultural workers.

Posted by: VirginiaIndependent | August 14, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

maybe we are more biologically ironclad than we think.
perhaps like cockroaches and rats, we can live on newspapers, wire and plaster, and be none the worse for wear.
but i am not sure about that.

i remember in the fifties, that there were actually "studies" that showed menthol cigarettes were good for you, and who thought, fifteen years ago, that certain kinds of plastic bottles werent good for babies?

this, from the monsanto website...
" Today, we are working to meet the needs of farmers in two ways. First, through our work in breeding, we are delivering superior genetics that allow farmers to get more out of each seed, resulting in the potential for higher yield. In addition, by inserting one or more genes in the seed — a biotechnology trait — we're able to provide farmers with a novel way to combat insects and control weeds, so yield is preserved throughout the growing season."
we are living things too.
what does this "novel" way of combating insects and controlling weeds do to us? to the insects and weeds that are being controlled? to the balance of nature and delicate food chains that we understand little about?
i dont know what is being done to our food supply, or who is looking out for our best health interests in creating new, disease resistant superstrains.

in all seriousness, you would need a degree in food engineering to know what is really being done to the food you eat nowadays. who is really looking out for us?
combine that with the lack of quality control over our food, and the morally, hygienically hazardous practices in industrial farming.
i feel at least i am doing the best i can for health and environment, when i buy organic fruits and vegetables, and other organic products.

Posted by: jkaren | August 14, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

I have the same comment VirginiaIndependent does. Having spent brief time in commercial blueberry fields, they just don't look too healthy for you after they've been sprayed. People walk through that white powder, inhale it, get it on their skin and clothes... I can afford to spend money in a way that encourages jobs for workers where they don't get exposed to that stuff. I reckon it's my responsibility to do so. Bonus: It's often tastier and might be healthier for me.

Posted by: Hana1 | August 14, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

By focusing on the narrow subject of nutrient content in organic foods, you are missing several larger-picture points.

Nutrient content in food depends mostly on how fresh the food is and the type of soil it was grown in. I will not get into the point about freshness here and how much time passes between when a food is harvested and then eaten. But the soil part -- and this is where Philpott and many others hit it right on -- is key. In short, soil health is the key to a healthy plant and a functioning agroecosystem.

Good soil health not only increases nutrients in foods (something that consumers might care about), but it also helps the plant build up defenses to fight off pests, and it helps retain moisture during periods of drought and helps to absorb water in periods of flooding.

Our soils have been depleted, degraded, eroded, and polluted in large part by the dominant type of ag that our government supports -- chemically intensive, plant (rather than soil) focused, ag.

Organic agriculture is the closest thing out there to the step in the right direction for mitigating the negative impacts of our ag system -- and it is the only ag system strictly regulated and that focuses at its core on the improvement of soil health and ecosystems.

Building up soil health, however, takes time, especially when you start from degraded soils. How long were the organic farms included in the lit review in organic production? While its takes three years to transition to organic production from conventional production, it may take longer than that to build the soil health and quality back up to have that be reflected in nutrient content of foods.

A couple of other points:
- We certainly do know that the chemicals and pesticides used in conventional produce have negative long term impacts on human health. That you think otherwise worries me.
- Over time, the nutrient content of fruits and vegetables has declined. Why aren't people outraged that the same produce that my grandmother bought when she was young now has fewer nutrients (and more pesticides) than what I can find now?

Posted by: agpolicy1949 | August 14, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

"At best, some studies funded by organic interests -- which doesn't make them wrong"

Heh. You might remind you progressive pals of the that; many of them are busy disparaging the health care research of the Lewin Group on the basis that its parent company is an insurer. Of course, it goes without saying that Lewin's findings would undermine a key Dem claim for the public option.

Posted by: tbass1 | August 14, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Organic seems to me to be the safer bet. If nutritionally they don't seem that different, I'm going to go with the produce not sprayed with poison. I'd rather the burden of proof be on those spraying our food with pesticides, herbicides, etc., rather than the other way around.

Bottom line: eat plants, lots of 'em, preferably organic.

Posted by: Dan49 | August 14, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

"Nutritionally enriched foods, for instance, don't do much for us; nor do multivitamins. We know fruits and vegetables are good for us, but we don't know exactly why."

Top nutritionist Joel Fuhrman, M.D. explains this well in his book, "Eat to Live"

Plant foods contain hundreds of beneficial substances called phytochemicals (phyto for plant), and they are in proportions that humans evolved to take advantage of, as early humans ate predominantly plant foods (of course, un- or little processed), and our primate predecessors, the apes are vegetarian who eat everything completely unprocessed.

A vitamin tablet will only have a few dozen of these substances at most, and not necessarily in very good proportions. White bread made from grain where all of the fiber and most of the hundreds of phytochemicals have been processed (filtered) out is still not very nutritious just because 5 or 10 phytochemicals have been added back later. The vast majority are still gone. And the proportions, the interactions, are very different than what we evolved for.

For a detailed account of the science and evidence, again I recommend Dr. Fuhrman's "Eat to Live"

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | August 17, 2009 8:16 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company