Study claims organic food has no health advantages

Berkeley Student Food Collective offers organic options, including this Bartlett pear. A recent study published by Stanford states that organic produce is no different than regular produce.
Carli Baker/Staff
Berkeley Student Food Collective offers organic options, including this Bartlett pear. A recent study published by Stanford states that organic produce is no different than regular produce.

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Earlier this month, Stanford University nutritionists released a survey of studies that found that nonorganically raised fruits, vegetables, animals and animal products are no less nutritious than organic foods and that they did not have significantly higher residues of pesticides.  In a town known as a hub for organic food, the survey’s findings have prompted debate by members of the UC Berkeley campus community.

The survey analyzed more than 200 studies on the nutritional benefits of organic foods conducted within the United States but has received criticism from those who contend that the scope of the study was not large enough to make a statement.

“Their view is very U.S.-centric … they are missing all of the studies done in Germany, which have consistently shown that (organic foods) contain higher vitamin C and antioxidants, which fight free radicals,” said Miguel Altieri, a campus professor of environmental science, policy and management. “It was a very subjective methodology.”

The issue is part of a national debate being fought in the United States Congress regarding the Farm Bill, which, among other policies, outlines how much support the federal government gives to organic versus conventional farms.

Because the bill is currently stalled on the House of Representatives floor, the study would have a minimal impact on shaping the policy in the bill, said Rep. Rochelle Pingree of Maine — who runs an organic farm in Maine — after a lecture on campus earlier this month. Still, she added, the study may contribute to the campaign against alternative farming.

Many researchers and organic-food enthusiasts also remained skeptical about whether the study’s findings will significantly affect sales of organic foods and argued that people buy organic food to support local farmers and reduce their impact on the environment.
“(Organic food is bought) mostly by middle upper class who buy it because of ethical, environmental and cultural reasons,” said Altieri, who cited studies concluding that soils in organic farms sequester more carbon than those of conventional farms. “It’s not just a health-related question — most people who buy organic understand that organic farming cools the planet.”

Celine Pallud, a campus professor of environmental science, policy and management, said consumers will continue to buy organic foods due to environmentally damaging practices of conventional farms. The use of fertilizer on conventional farms has led to water contamination within the state, she said.

People buy organic food for the ecological benefits of organic farming, like less land erosion, crop monoculture and toxic runoff and to support small-scale farmers, said Kate Kaplan, a member of the Berkeley Student Food Collective, in an email.

“It is indisputable that organic farming is much more beneficial on an ecological scale, even if it yields equivalent nutritional values as conventional farming,” Kaplan said.

David Zilberman, a campus professor of agriculture and resource economics, said the survey shows that organic food is worth buying to aid small-scale farmers but not for the nutritional benefits.

The study also failed to account for the difference in farming techniques of industrial organic and small-scale farms, Altieri said. If small-scale farms had been considered, Altieri said, the study would have found differences in nutritional benefits of organic versus nonorganic foods.

The issue of whether the amount of pesticide residue can be used to compare the nutritional benefits of the two differently farmed foods is not the problem, according to Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a lobbying group for health and conservation. By setting limits on the type and amount of pesticides that farmers can use, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency simply creates the assumption that a certain amount of pesticides are safe.

“There wasn’t a robust understanding of regulatory science (in the study),” Cook said. “The EPA sets the legal amount of (pesticide) tolerances, and the assumption is that they’re safe … (but) dozens of these tolerances have been changed in the last five to 10 years.”

Contact Levon Minnasian at [email protected].

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  • CED

    Yes, go ahead eat the poison. Help agribusiness. That should work.

  • Karen Spira

    The Stanford study is a meta-study, which means that it reviews data gathered from a large body of prior studies. While the Stanford study is not funded by private industry, I have yet to hear the sources of funding of the studies Stanford scientists synthesized in order to reach their conclusion. A crucial question remains: who funded the original empirical research on which this study was based?

    In addition, I would like to re-emphasize that it is far from “settled” whether the FDA’s allowable pesticide limits are in fact safe for humans — and especially for humans of all ages, especially young children who are more sensitive to exposure. As a prior comment notes, those allowable limits are subject to re-examination and adjustment. What is labeled “safe” today can be redesignated as “toxic” tomorrow.

    For these two reasons, this study raises more questions than it resolves about the health benefits of organic foods.

  • PLM

    I don’t think anyone expected organic food to just have increased levels of nutrients across the board. The reality is more complex than ‘conventional’ vs. ‘organic’, as each term can imply various modes of culture. Of course the type of culture affects the nutrient content of food. Examples:

    – the composition of animal feed affects the relative proportion of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. so grass-fed vs. grain-fed might be more important than whether or not it’s organic (note however, that the Stanford study actually showed more omega-3 in organic milk, it’s just not mentioned in the press release)

    – the Stanford study also found more levels of polyphenols in organic produce, which are important antioxidants (this is also not mentioned in the press release). there is actually a simple explanation for this, which is that polyphenols are compounds produced by plants as natural defenses, and they don’t need as much when you protect them with artificial pesticides.

    So the mode of culture matters, not just whether or not it’s organic (though organic agriculture correlates with less pesticides, etc.). You really have to look at specific results for specific nutrients rather than make braod statements about all organic foods and all nutrients lumped together.

  • Alf

    Did the Daily Cal actually read the Stanford study? You say :

    and that they did not have significantly higher residues of pesticides ”

    Yet even the press release says:”While researchers found that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables, organic foods are not necessarily 100 percent free of pesticides. What’s more, as the researchers noted, the pesticide levels of all foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits. ”

    The study basically says that organics have significantly lower pesticides residues (significant in the statistical sense), but that both organics and conventional produce were below allowable safety limits.

    • anonymous

      based on the statement in the press release “What’s more, as the researchers noted, the pesticide levels of all foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits.” it seems as if the conclusion was drawn that pesticide levels in conventional foods were not significantly higher than those of organic. Sure they’re higher, but not significantly higher because they still fall below what’s considered to be the “safety limits”

      • Nunya Beeswax

        Whose “allowable safety limits”? Those of the FDA, which has become a rubber-stamp organization for Big Ag and a source of sinecures for Monsanto executives?

  • Nunya Beeswax

    Choosing organic food is not so much about having more nutrients (your body can only use so much at one time in any case); it’s more about having fewer contaminants. The lack of pesticides, hormones, and genetic fuckery (whose consequences we still know very little about) is plenty of reason for me to buy organic when I can.

    And organic food tends to taste better than conventionally farmed food, as well.

  • I_h8_disqus

    I wonder what the Germans do differently so that they get more nutritious organic produce. Maybe Whole Foods will start carrying German produce instead of local.