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.”