A recent review by the UK Foods Standards Agency came out claiming that organic foods are no better than the less expensive conventionally grown foods. A closer look at that review reveals some truths underlying the growing media attention and debate over whether or not organic foods are worth the extra buck. I am re-printing an excellent post on this topic by Tom Philpott who farms and cooks at Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
One of the key messages I received while researching this topic is that organic foods consistently contain a higher level of tertiary, phytochemicals then conventionally grown foods. These phytochemicals (e.g. resveratrol, chlorophyll, glucosinolates) hold as much, if not more promise for preventing and treating disease then the basic nutritional compounds that are used to test the benefit of one food over another.
A bit of nitrogen with those veggies?
A recent literature review by the U.K. Food Standards Agency concluded that organic foods offer no nutritional advantages to ones grown with conventional chemical agriculture. The report quickly bounced around the media and the internet and has congealed into received wisdom. For example, in a recent chat with readers, Washington Post food politics columnist (and general policy writer) Ezra Klein engaged in the following exchange:
Santa Fe, N.M.: I saw a report today on a study finding that organic food isn’t any healthier than conventional food. Is buying organic a waste of money, in your opinion?
Ezra Klein: Honestly? Yes. It’s definitely not healthier, at least not according to any study I’ve seen. There’s some argument that it’s more environmentally friendly. But it’s not something that I’m convinced is worth a premium. I’d rather buy from a local farm that uses some pesticides than a major producers who has gone organic.
Whoa – lots going on there. Let’s stick to the “definitely not healthier” bit for now. (As for the idea that there’s just “some argument” for the environmental benefits of not dousing fields of food with synthetic poisons and greenhouse-gas-spewing fertilizer, I’m not sure what to say.)
Well, Ezra, here is a study, released last year by the U.S.-based Organic Center, that comes to a conclusion quite different from the U.K. agency’s findings. It’s called “New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods.” The Organic Center recently released a cogent rebuttal to the U.K. findings as well. True, the Organic Center is funded by Big Organic companies like Dean Foods (owner of Horizon Dairy) and Whole Foods, which have an interest in promoting organics as healthier. But I’ve never seen the Center’s scholarship successfully challenged.
Moreover, as Paula Crossfield’s excellent recent post on Civil Eats shows, the U.K. Food Standards Agency itself, despite its governmental status, can hardly be seen as a neutral adjudicator. Like our own FDA, the FSA is shot through with once and future food-industry execs and flacks. (Paula also points us to another study finding nutritional advantages to organic food – this one commissioned by the European Union.)
The Organic Center claims that the FAS study neglected to consider total antioxidant content – which seems a pretty gaping oversight, giving that antioxidants are emerging as a key micronutrient for fighting cancer and other maladies. (The Center’s own study found significantly more total antioxidants in organic food than conventional.) The Center also makes a convincing case that the FAS researchers botched the measurement of another key micronutrient, polyphenols.
But what I find most immediately significant is this: Both studies found that conventionally grown produce has substantially higher levels of nitrates than organic – most likely from widespread use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer on conventional farms. This consensus around a nitrogen gap suggests a non-trivial advantage for organic food: A growing body of literature indicts heightened levels of nitrates in the U.S. diet as a significant health menace. For a while, we’ve known that nitrates are a powerful carcinogen. The latest: a rather stunning recent report from the Journal of Alzheimer Disease (press release here) linking nitrates in food to “increased deaths from diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes mellitus and Parkinson’s.”
The study’s lead author, Suzanne de la Monte of Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University, declares that we have become a “nitrosamine generation,” exposed to increasing levels of nitrogen-derived compounds that pose a threat at even in low doses. She indicts nitrate-preserved foods like bacon – but also conventional agriculture. According to de la Monte, “We receive increased exposure through the abundant use of nitrate-containing fertilizers for agriculture,” which are both taken up in food crops and also seep into drinking water.
De la Monte reports that incidence of the diseases in question – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and type 2 diabetes – have “all increased radically over the past several decades and show no sign of plateau.” According to de la Monte: Because there has been a relatively short time interval associated with the dramatic shift in disease incidence and prevalence rates, we believe this is due to exposure-related rather than genetic etiologies. The press release adds: The findings indicate that while nitrogen-containing fertilizer consumption increased by 230 percent between 1955 and 2005, its usage doubled between 1960 and 1980, which just precedes the insulin-resistant epidemics the researchers found. They also found that sales from the fast food chain and the meat processing [industry] increased more than 8-fold from 1970 to 2005, and grain consumption increased 5-fold.
To me, the study stands as a pretty damning indictment of industrial agriculture – and in particular efforts to extend its alleged benefits to the global South. Hey, grow more food with our agrichemicals – and melt your brains and become dependent on pharmaceutical insulin in the process! It bears remembering, too, that industrial agriculture’s reliance on synthetic fertilizer contributes significantly to climate change and coastal dead zones.
Organic agriculture, meanwhile, relies on slow-release fertilizers that don’t get taken up as readily by plants, leaving lower residue levels in food. And because organic agriculture builds carbon in soil, it also tends to hold nitrogen better, not letting it leach into soil or air nearly as much.