Winter 2012-2013

Closer to Home | The Truth About Organic Food

Mardi Mellon, senior scientist in the UCS Food and Environment Program, explains the findings of a recent, much-publicized study.

The author (right) and her colleague Jeff O’Hara split a weekly share of produce delivered by a local farm’s CSA program. The farm uses organic practices to grow its fruits and vegetables.

Several of my colleagues and I participate in a local farm’s community supported agriculture (CSA) program, in which we buy a share of the farm’s harvest. From peaches and blackberries to tomatoes and butternut squash, the weekly arrival of fruits and vegetables has always been a highlight of the summer. Although the farm’s produce is not certified organic, it does employ practices central to organic farming such as avoiding the use of antibiotics and synthetic pesticides.

So when we heard that a Stanford University study released in September concluded that there is “hardly any evidence at all that organic food is healthier,” and news coverage of the research implied that consumers might have been duped about the benefits of organically produced food, did we change our minds? Not at all.

Benefits beyond Nutrition

Stanford’s meta-analysis (a study of studies) confirmed that organic food has significantly lower pesticide levels, lower multidrug-resistant bacteria levels, and higher beneficial fat levels than conventional food. But the media—and even the study’s authors—played down these benefits, instead focusing only on the fact that organic food has not yet been shown to have higher levels of vitamins and other nutrients. From a scientific standpoint, that doesn’t make sense, because nutrition isn’t the only health benefit that matters.

UCS research, for example, has shown that the vast majority of antibiotics used in the United States are used in animal agriculture on healthy animals, mainly to promote growth and prevent illness in crowded feeding pens; this overuse increases antibiotic resistance and erodes the drugs’ effectiveness in human medicine. Organic agriculture helps address this public health threat by avoiding antibiotics.

Also, while the study found that pesticide levels in conventional food meet federal safety standards, these standards tend to lag behind the advancing edge of new science. Recent analysis from Washington State University¾which was not cited by the Stanford study—presents strong evidence that pesticides in the diet can adversely affect children. Even if we need more information to fully understand the role of pesticides in our food and environment, minimizing their use in food crops is the cautious and responsible course to take.

A Complex Issue, but a Clear Message

Agricultural systems are complex, and the Stanford paper demonstrates the challenge of analyzing them. For example, when comparing organic and conventional foods, scientists must consider a bewildering number of factors such as whether the vegetables were similarly ripe, or whether the milk was produced in the summer or winter. And more research is needed; of the 237 studies assessed in the Stanford report, only five evaluated people who consumed a predominantly organic diet, and none examined pesticide levels in adults.

In other words, the Stanford analysis is not the final answer to questions about organic agriculture, but rather a first attempt at answering them. UCS welcomes further research, but consumers don’t need to wait for the results of additional studies to feel good about buying organic food—we already know enough about the benefits to be excited about renewing our CSA membership for next year.

Also in this issue of Earthwise:


Can we continue to have reliable electricity if we produce more wind power, since the wind does not always blow?