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It was the equivalent of comparing milk and Elmer’s glue on the basis of whiteness.
October 3, 2012 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Like too many studies, the Stanford study dangerously isolates a finding from its larger context. It significantly plays down the disparity in pesticides...and neglects to mention that 10,000 to 20,000 United States agricultural workers get a pesticide-poisoning diagnosis each year. And while the study concedes that “the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was 33 percent higher among conventional chicken and pork than organic alternatives,” it apparently didn’t seek to explore how consuming antibiotic-resistant bacteria might be considered “non-nutritious.”.... That the authors of the study chose to focus on a trivial aspect of the organic versus conventional comparison is regrettable. That they published a study that would so obviously be construed as a blanket knock against organic agriculture is willfully misleading and dangerous. That so many leading news agencies fall for this stuff is scary. Mark Bittman - That Flawed Stanford Study (SL NYTimes)
posted by beisny (38 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Stanford study may or may not be flawed, but that's a terrible analysis of it. He criticizes it for failing to address issues it simply was not attempting to address (as, for example, the effects of exposure to pesticide not simply in the food that people eat, but among agricultural workers; or the effect of conventional agricultural practices on drinking water). That is so utterly irrelevant to the question the Stanford study was actually addressing that it's essentially dishonest to raise these issues. Obviously these are issues that are important in assessing the overall value of organic farming (and, indeed, they are the kinds of issues on which a strong and compelling case for organic can be made). But the Stanford study was not pursuing all possible aspects of organic farming: it was restricting itself, perfectly reasonably, to the simple question of whether organic produce is more nutritious than non-organic produce (a claim proffered very frequently by supporters of organic farming). And its findings are pretty predictable; myriad studies have debunked the claim that organic produce is inherently healthier in itself or inherently tastier than non-organic produce.

The proper response to that finding is to say "O.K., but here are these other good reasons to support organic farming practices" not to have a little tantrum because you don't like the results.
posted by yoink at 8:31 PM on October 3, 2012 [18 favorites]


Additionally, much of his complaining is really about the way the popular press has reported this result. That's a much more legitimate complaint. Could the authors of the study have engaged with the media in a way that would have produced more accurate headlines? Maybe, but he doesn't provide any evidence for this or really even suggest it.
posted by Slothrup at 8:39 PM on October 3, 2012


It's the same ideological conflicts and stupidity, over and over. Bittman's piece may be quite flawed, but at least he's trying to speak up against the narrowminded nerd logic in this kind of scientific research, that really is so easily distorted by popular media.
posted by polymodus at 8:48 PM on October 3, 2012


Bittman's piece may be quite flawed, but at least he's trying to speak up against the narrowminded nerd logic in this kind of scientific research,

Narrowminded nerd logic? What are you referring to? The fact that the study asked limited questions? Because all studies limit what questions they attempt to answer. In his analogy, the problem with a study comparing milk and glue on the basis of whiteness is that that's a dumb thing to compare them on; the problem isn't narrow focus, it's wrong focus.

Comparing organic and conventional food on the basis of the presences of nutrients isn't dumb. It's not the only thing you'd want to compare them on, if you were a consumer making a choice between two product, but it's certainly one of them. Organic foods are billed as more nutritious, and, no matter what Bittman says, "contains more nutrients" is a pretty common usage of the word nutritious.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:05 PM on October 3, 2012 [8 favorites]


Consumer Reports did a much better critique, much faster after the initial release.
posted by Miko at 9:24 PM on October 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Organic foods are billed as more nutritious

Wait -- they are? Says who? I am pretty sure it's actually not legal to explicitly promote an organic food as providing more nutrition than a non-organic food. Also, the passive voice is confusing. Who promotes organic food as more nutritious? There are a lot of crackpots out there, so you can certainly dredge up looneyball dietary ifo websites, but I can't say I've seen a company market its organic food as "more nutritious" due to organic methods.

Organic is usually promoted as not having been raised without synthetic chemical inputs, hormones and antibiotics. Even that's only one narrow part of the original definition of organic, but that's the basis for the USDA's legal designation.
posted by Miko at 9:32 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Contains fewer harmful compounds" is also a pretty common usage of the word nutritious.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:43 PM on October 3, 2012


It's really against my own best interests to say this, since I don't want other consumers to bid up the already stratospheric prices we pay for the limited amount of organic produce out there, but by far the greatest nutritional benefit organics offer was ignored by the Stanford study and Bittman alike.

Namely, the more diverse and more healthful populations of bacteria the organics carry.

These bacteria carry the enzymes which have evolved (by long association with the vegetables in question) the ability to break down and make available to you the nutrients of the otherwise significantly indigestible vegetable matter you consume.

They do it for themselves of course, but you get benefits as well, either when they establish themselves in your gut, or, perhaps more often, when they transfer (by plasmid) the genes that encode the enzymes to bacteria which are already established.

Non-organics don't have these bacteria because the soils they grow in are treated with biocides which kill some such bacteria directly, but probably do more damage by wiping out worms and larvae, et al, which carry such bacteria in their guts for the same reason you'd like them in yours, and the non-organics don't have them also because pesticides have killed the insects which would have carried the bacteria from plant to plant and deposited them on the plants in their feces.

And wouldn't you know it, all kinds of health problems largely unrelated to nutrients as narrowly construed by the Stanford study seem to be associated with the wrong kinds of gut flora, as well.
posted by jamjam at 10:11 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


jamjam, [citation needed]. Can you back up any of what you wrote, or is it just your opinion?
posted by halogen at 11:00 PM on October 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


Jamjam, I admire the orderly sensibility of your theory.
posted by ryanrs at 1:27 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


"The Stanford study dangerously isolates a finding from its larger context" - I'll say it does! I had no idea it was about pesticides. For all these years I assumed the student prison guards acted like jerks purely because of the psychology of power.
posted by EnterTheStory at 2:26 AM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


"It's really against my own best interests to say this, since I don't want other consumers to bid up the already stratospheric prices we pay for the limited amount of organic produce out there, but by far the greatest nutritional benefit organics offer was ignored by the Stanford study and Bittman alike."
This is a very valid fear, virtually none of the markup of organic products over equivalent conventional ones has anything to do with actual differences in the cost of production, which could be affected positively by increased consumption. For most organic products, that markup is almost exclusively applied at the grocery store so as to bilk more cash out of price insensitive customers while not losing price sensitive customers who can still afford to buy conventional products.
"Namely, the more diverse and more healthful populations of bacteria the organics carry.

These bacteria carry the enzymes which have evolved (by long association with the vegetables in question) the ability to break down and make available to you the nutrients of the otherwise significantly indigestible vegetable matter you consume.
"
This is a very strange assertion to make, and looking around online I found a bunch of woo oriented folks parroting it, but no actual evidence for meaningfully different bacterial populations correlating with organic management strategies. Specifically, the study being referenced in the FPP's article 1 addressed there being no difference in levels of known harmful bacteria. That said, it doesn't really make sense that the flora found on organically labeled fruit and vegetable products would be meaningfully different from conventional ones, and for the most part these are soil bacteria and fruit yeasts that you don't really want to survive in your gut anyway. Conventional pest and pathogen management strategies cannot and do not make vegetable fields sterile. That said, there are various kinds of organically managed vegetables like lettuce that are more vulnerable to plant pathogens and produce defensive compounds in response that are demonstrably unhealthy for us.

For organically labeled animal products, if anything, it would make sense for the opposite to be true and conventional products to have healthier microbial populations associated with them. For example, one of the primary challenges in commercial scale milk production is the development of mastitis (or infections of the udder, generally by staphylococcal followed by fecal coliform bacteria) and currently there are no treatment strategies available to dairy farmers who want to label their milk organic.2 While all commercially sold milk is pasteurized (for all kinds of good reasons) and thus safe, one would expect higher negligible levels of bacterial toxins in organically labeled milk than conventionally labeled milk. Similarly for meat products, you really don't want that flora, but the meaningful determinant of how much bacteria there will be in your meat has nothing to do with the management strategies used during the animal's lifetime but everything to do with the processing. One difference that has been consistent in meat products, as mentioned in the study not actually refferenced in the FPP,1 is that authors have been 33% more likely to isolate individual bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics from conventionally produced chicken and pork products. However the role that this could possibly play in pathogenisis in humans is pretty debatable,3 and not at all related to your point.

For organically labeled fermented products, there is absolutely no meaningful difference in the flora. Hell, most fermented products today are pasteurized and then have the flora added back into them to maintain consistency, as the cell mass produced by batch fermentation is generally pretty unpredictable and has big effects on rates of spoilage.

Regardless, human sampling of environmental bacteria, for the most part, belies even the most subtle and considered of generalizations. For example, would it surprise you to learn that there has yet to be a probiotic strains available on the market that has been demonstrated to have a beneficial effect while introduced alive that does not also have the same effect when introduced dead? This 'probiotic paradox' 4, along with some really unfortunate stupidity,5 has been gutting the academic discipline of studying probiotics.


1Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, et al. (2012) Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Ann Intern Med. 157(5):348-366
2Ruegg PL. (2009) Management of mastitis on organic and conventional dairy farms. J Anim Sci 87(13):43-55.
3Mathews KH. Antimicrobial Drug Use and Veterinary Costs in U.S. Livestock Production. Agricultural Information Bulletin No. (AIB-766). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture; 2001.
4Adams CA. (2010) The probiotic paradox: live and dead cells are biological response modifiers. Nutr Res Rev. 23(1):37-46.
5Besselink MGH, Santvoort HC, Buskens E, et al. (2008) Probiotic prophylaxis in predicted severe acute pancreatitis: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet 371(9613):651-659.

Incidentally, if anyone would like PDFs of any of these papers, or others related to this adademic discussion that we are currently having, just memail me an email address I can send them to and promise me you won't distribute them any further.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:37 AM on October 4, 2012 [20 favorites]


One thing I find particularly depressing is that in the article linked by the FPP, the author shows no evidence of having actually read the damn study. He only cites things available from the abstract and most of his points are directly addressed in the actual paper in ways that make him look like an idiot. Fuck science journalism.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:41 AM on October 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


He criticizes it for failing to address issues it simply was not attempting to address...

Ummmm....yes.

A: Man, that doctor is terrible. I have a sore throat and all he did was tap my knees.
B: Why are you criticizing him for failing to address an issue he was not attempting to address?
posted by DU at 4:01 AM on October 4, 2012


"He criticizes it for failing to address issues it simply was not attempting to address..."

If he had actually read the paper, he would have seen references to papers that did so.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:18 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Man, that doctor is terrible. I have a sore throat and all he did was tap my knees

No. What this is: "Man, that doctor is terrible. I said I had a sore throat, he said it wasn't an infection, but he didn't tap my knee!"

Experiments have to have scope. The scope of this experiment was "does organic farming techniques make for healthier and better tasting food." Note the period. The reason experiments are carefully scoped is simple: the more variables you are trying to test, the more chance for an invalid or inconclusive result. Such as diagnosing your sore throat as a lower back neurological issue, because he tapped your knee.

There may well be hundreds of reasons that organically grown produce is healthier. We should enumerate and test them, one by one. Just because this study found one, and only one, of those reasons to be false does not make the others false or true. It makes them "untested."

If you feel that pesticide exposure to farm workers is an issue, we test that. If it is, then that is a confirmed reason. The issue with journalists is when an experiment disproves one reason, and the press reports the entire corpus of reasons has been proven false.

But, decrying that test for X didn't also check Y thus it is a bad test. Meh.
posted by eriko at 4:21 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


For most organic products, that markup is almost exclusively applied at the grocery store so as to bilk more cash out of price insensitive customers while not losing price sensitive customers who can still afford to buy conventional products.
Although that may account for some pricing (stores do indeed increase their mark-up for luxury items and for items that can be purchased more cheaply elsewhere like HBAs), it doesn't account for the entire price difference. At military commissaries, where groceries are sold at cost, organic produce is still considerably more expensive than traditional produce. In that case there is no mark-up or pricing shenanigans.
posted by Lame_username at 4:38 AM on October 4, 2012


It seems fairly pointless to me to criticise a study of nutrients because it didn't look at other factors as well.

But buried down there is a claim that there are nutrients which studies have shown to be present in higher amounts in organic foods, but that these particular nutrients were excluded from the Stanford study. I wish he had dealt with that point more clearly. What compounds? How important are these compounds? Are there other compounds accepted as nutrients which were excluded from the study, and if so, why?
posted by Azara at 4:51 AM on October 4, 2012


As far as I know, organic produce can often require more labour and/or land, or else (in the case of something like fruit) more wastage because even people who buy organic apples don't want apples with worm holes (or worms!) in them.
posted by jb at 4:56 AM on October 4, 2012


My understanding is that while organic farming sometimes does produce smaller annual yields than conventional farming, it also is less apt to deplete the soil in which the crops grow. Thus fields can be farmed for longer (often indefinitely, given appropriate farming techniques) without resorting to petroleum-based fertilizers (currently a major drain on that non-renewable resource) and therefore organic farming allows for greater overall yields from the same soil.

If someone has knowledge to the contrary, please correct me.
posted by Scientist at 5:41 AM on October 4, 2012


To quote one of my physiology profs: "What does 'Organic' even mean?" In his view, anything biological was "organic" and using the word to market food grown without pesticides was a misleading distinction.

I've always felt that we should be working towards a system where all food was good quality, all food was grown in a sustainable way, and everyone had access to the same good food. Because the current organic/regular distinction is mostly a marketing tool that allows rich people to pay extra to have food they think is "better" for reasons they don't actually understand. And which may be completely meaningless.

And sadly, the organic foods distribution system is a channel for the most egregious woo about a whole bunch of other health issues.
posted by sneebler at 6:30 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I’m starting to realize that there are two different viewpoints of science out there in the world – and neither one has anything to do with religion.

Some people believe in the Pursuit of Knowledge, and the pursuit is often considered noble. I agree.

But most people believe in science because of its potential to solve problems. They are not interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake. They are interested in finding solutions to problems.

Science can be very good at solving problems, and it’s happy to have that reputation. When scientists ask for funding, the ability to solve problems is front and center. It’s hard to sell research and science on the basis of it just being about the Pursuit of Knowledge. But honestly, most people who make a career of it are doing it because they genuinely want to help people. They themselves mostly believe in science for the sake of solving problems.

The issue here is that there is no Problem that this study is addressing or solving. People aren’t being duped into wasting a crippling amount of money on non-nutritious or bad-for-your-health organic food. “More nutrients” isn’t really the reason people buy organic produce.

So you can conduct this study of organic and non-organic foods in a laboratory setting, in a “decontextualized” environment, and pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake to compare the nutrient content of these two types of food.

But these folks sat in a human context when they decided what The Problem was, and they released their findings as if they were a solution to some Problem out in the world.

People who criticize this research do not have to do it on the terms set by scientific method; ie. it’s not because people don’t understand the science or the limited scope of this one study that they’re crying foul.

It’s because they critique this science on the terms set by lived experience. It's political, it's messy, it's contentious, it's full of self-interested people. And that's where scientists live, too.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:34 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I admire the orderly sensibility of your theory"

- That was great. Understated, classy rejoinder.
posted by etherist at 6:54 AM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


“More nutrients” isn’t really the reason people buy organic produce.

Except that organic food enthusiasts have insisted that consuming organic food is better for you since the dawn of the organic food movement. The claim that organic food is more nutritious than non-organic food is simply ubiquitous in organic food circles (along with the also frequently debunked claim that organic food tastes better than non organic food). When studies that conflicted with the Stanford study's findings were published, the response from organic farmers and organic food enthusiast was not to say "gosh, that's interesting, but that's not why we advocate for organic farming" it was to trumpet the findings as proof of what they had been saying all along.
posted by yoink at 7:36 AM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


"My understanding is that while organic farming sometimes does produce smaller annual yields than conventional farming, it also is less apt to deplete the soil in which the crops grow. Thus fields can be farmed for longer (often indefinitely, given appropriate farming techniques) without resorting to petroleum-based fertilizers (currently a major drain on that non-renewable resource) and therefore organic farming allows for greater overall yields from the same soil.

If someone has knowledge to the contrary, please correct me.
"

For starters, while a google search for 'petroleum-based fertilizer brings up a depressing number of hits, oil makes really terrible fertilizer and there really isn't such a thing as petroleum-based fertilizer. Modern agricultural fertilizer is made from four component parts: Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, and other trace minerals.
-Nitrogen fertalizer components are created from atmospheric nitrogen that is fixed hydrogen through the Haber-Bosch process. We are still in a big way coasting on the truly massive amount of nitrogen fixed for weapons during WWII1, but today Natural gas (methane) is by far the most common source of the hydrogen used in modern nitrogen fertalizer production. It can be made from hydrogen derived from water and historically this has been done in a few instances when natural gas was not avalibale or because it was not feisable to purify available natural gas to remove sulfur contaminants. This is pretty much eternally renewable so long as there are people around to do it, though nitrogen leeching into rivers causes problems with algeal blooms once it hits the sea.

-Phosphorus fertilizer components are commercially produced from a number of phosphate minerals. This is not strictly renewable and may run out in the next hundred years but phosphorus can also be extracted from processed biomass or from other sources including sea water. It is indeed valuable enough that when petroleum refineries have particularly contaminated oil that has phosphorus in it, they will often collect and sell it, but this is not a significant source of global phosphorus.

-Potassium comes from a whole bunch of natural sources, generally potash, which can be found in large deposits in Canada, Russia, Europe and elsewhere. It was historically produced from seaweed or wood ash and can also be extracted from potassium salts which are commonly found in ancient lakebeds as well as in salt lakes. Several other minerals also contain easily extractable potassium and significant amounts can be found in seawater.

-Trace Minerals like calcium and iron can be missing from some soils and so farmers often add them to their fertilizer mixes.
None of these can really be said to come from oil. That said,

The stress that either farming has on the land is entirely dependant on the crop being grown, the cycles being used, the appropriateness of the fertilizer applied, and how well the crop happens to do that year. When selling with an organic label ties a hand behind their back with regards to most of the available fertilizers, farmers have to get more creative and careful with the other things under their control to compensate and keep their land healthy even if that means being less flexible in responding to the market when deciding what crop to plant. Thus, you can sort of squint and see that idea as true, but really its bullshit. Different plants need or replace each of these various components to various degrees (the most famous example being nitrogen hungry corn and nitrogen fixing soy) and applying them artificially doesn't really hurt the farmer's land unless done stupid, which is why they do it.

1At the time, serious thought was given to spraying America's forests with the surplus, to help the timber industry.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:02 AM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Except that organic food enthusiasts have insisted that consuming organic food is better for you since the dawn of the organic food movement.

And it still may be better for you. It just doesn't have more nutrients.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:09 AM on October 4, 2012


Thank you for your comments, Blasdelb. I've studied the history of agriculture, but I'm very ignorant on the science of contemporary agriculture.
posted by jb at 9:03 AM on October 4, 2012


And it still may be better for you. It just doesn't have more nutrients.

And, again, as the specific example I linked to shows, they have been insisting that it is more nutritious.

But, fine, let's leave that to one side. "Nutrients" is off the table, apparently. You claim "it may still be better for you"--fine. What, specifically, do you mean by that? What, specifically, would you consider a useful study to determine whether or not this hypothesis is correct? What are these specific health-giving properties that you think organic produce may have?

I don't disagree, by the way, that it is possible you might find something. But it's also pretty clear that if someone actually does the study and finds that whatever hypothetical property you've postulated is not in fact, present in organic produce, that study will be met with howls of outrage because, hey look!, the goalposts have been moved to some other part of the field.

If you claim that organic produce is "better for you" because, say, it has a better "probiotic" effect and someone does a study that debunks that claim, it is not a useful response to that study to complain that it didn't look at pesticide poisoning of agricultural workers, or that it didn't look at the effects of pesticide run-off into the ocean or that it didn't look at the monoculture crop risks or what have you. Those may all be compelling reasons to prefer organic farming to non-organic farming, but they are simply not within the purview of a study which is examining a specific claim about the health-giving properties of the consumption of organic produce.
posted by yoink at 9:06 AM on October 4, 2012


Er, did you read the article? Or even the excerpt? For example: And while the study concedes that “the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was 33 percent higher among conventional chicken and pork than organic alternatives,” it apparently didn’t seek to explore how consuming antibiotic-resistant bacteria might be considered “non-nutritious.”
posted by unknowncommand at 9:12 AM on October 4, 2012


Er, did you read the article? Or even the excerpt? For example: And while the study concedes that “the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was 33 percent higher among conventional chicken and pork than organic alternatives,” it apparently didn’t seek to explore how consuming antibiotic-resistant bacteria might be considered “non-nutritious.”

So you're suggesting that this is something that a new study ought to look at? The health effects of consuming a slightly higher number of bacteria "resistant to three or more antibiotics"? I agree. That would be a great thing to study. It would be really interesting to know if that leads to any significant health consequences. Unfortunately, that interesting question, like many other potentially interesting questions, was outside the scope of this particular study which was not designed to examine that particular question. Is this really so hard to grasp?

Now, let's say that someone does do that study. And let's say that it finds no demonstrable health effects. Will you agree that it would be a meaningless criticism of that study to say "ah, but what about the effects of pesticides on agricultural workers?" Just as it would be a meaningless criticism of that study to say "ah, but what about the probiotic effects of the bacteria on organic produced?" These may all be things worth studying, but it is hard to imagine the well-designed study that would study all of them at once.
posted by yoink at 9:42 AM on October 4, 2012


"Er, did you read the article? Or even the excerpt? For example: And while the study concedes that “the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was 33 percent higher among conventional chicken and pork than organic alternatives,” it apparently didn’t seek to explore how consuming antibiotic-resistant bacteria might be considered “non-nutritious.”"

I'm not sure who you're asking, but I did address this in my comment and so did the authors of the study in the actual paper. This is either an example of the author of the news article in the FPP having a total failure of reading comprehension or not even bothering to pony up the $20 to access it. Regardless, relative levels of antibiotic resistance is not a question of how nutritious conventional or organic meat products are but of how safe they are, which the paper does actually address by providing citations to the debate on the subject he clearly does not understand.

The total failure of this article to meet even basic comprehension of the topic it is expounding on is unconscionable. Fuck this clown and fuck the New York times for laying off real journalists to hire him.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:52 AM on October 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Contains fewer harmful compounds" is also a pretty common usage of the word nutritious.

I don't agree with that. I hew to the definition that basically says "providing nourishment."
posted by Miko at 10:22 AM on October 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


If the only thing that people were concerned about, with respect to consumption of conventional produce, was getting fewer nutrients, then this study would be actually meaningful and worthy of the attention that it's gotten. It's not, on all counts.
posted by unknowncommand at 10:39 AM on October 4, 2012


Thanks Miko, that Consumer Reports piece explains exactly what I'm trying to say.
posted by unknowncommand at 1:48 PM on October 4, 2012


"Consumer Reports did a much better critique, much faster after the initial release."

This critique at the very least manages to demonstrate that it has actually read the damn study, but that is an awfully low bar,

Of the mentioned limitations:
"The analysis included plenty of studies that did find a nutritional benefit to eating organic food, such as higher levels of phosphorous and phenols (a type of antioxidant compound) in organic produce and more omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk and chicken. Some other studies weren't able to identify a benefit, meaning the findings overall were heterogeneous, or mixed—which is very different from "no benefit" across the board."
This is a good explanation of part of why this does not mean that organics as a whole are more nutritious ala XKCD. Regardless, phosphorous is not an element that people in the western world are especially lacking in, and the antioxidant value of phenols or any other food compound has no meaningful effect on human health.
"Only three of the 17 human studies in the analysis looked at health outcomes, and two of those focused on allergies in children—an odd metric for comparing organic to conventional diets, since there's no reason that organic diets should correlate with fewer allergies. "That isn't part of what organic food production even is and it isn't surprising to learn there may not be any difference" in the rates of allergies between children who eat organically and those who don't, says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of consumer safety and sustainability for Consumer Reports, adding that it was interesting that the authors also found one study that did suggest a benefit, for childhood eczema."
It would be surprising to learn that there would be any repeatably measurable effect in human health as a result of eating conventional foods rather than organics. Immunological effects were studied because they were among the least fantastically implausible available to study. Organic food producers have been accusing conventionally grown foods of these sorts of dangers of the gaps, where harms that have not yet been proven to not exist get trumpeted only to change something new when they get disproven.
"It could take many years for the cumulative effects of pesticide buildup in the body from eating conventionally grown food to show up. Cancer risks, for example, are calculated over long periods of exposure to carcinogens. The human studies in the Stanford analysis lasted at most two years."
This does not refute anything the authors have actually stated, the gist of which is that there is no evidence for organically labeled food as having any nutritional benefits or conventionally grown food as having any proven health risks, which there isn't. Besides, the sheer scale of things for which there is are no definitive evidence that they do not cause cancer ten years later is absolutely mindboggling.
"The study downplays the importance of the prohibition of antibiotics in organic agriculture, which can help counter the serious public-health problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Such bacteria have increased greatly in prevalence in recent years, possibly due to the routine use of antibiotics in conventionally raised farm animals. Indeed, the meta-analysis determined that conventionally produced chicken and pork had a 33 percent higher risk for bacteria that's known to be resistant to at least three antibiotics."
The importance of the prohibition of antibiotics in organic agriculture really is worth downplaying from the hype and inaccurate information that you would find in all but the most presciently of crafted of google searches, and I say this as someone who agrees that farmers are not currently restricted enough. The study itself does meta-analyses of three measures of antibiotic resistance, finds a very small but statistically meaningful difference in one of them for chicken and pork, and suggests that this is not necessarily indicative of a crisis - which unlike the antibiotic resistance in human pathogens it is not.
The perception of better nutrition is only one reason that people might choose to eat organically. Even if the research in that area remains murky, it's clear that organic diets provide less exposure to pesticides and antibiotics, two potential safety benefits, and that organic agriculture is better for the environment. A nationally representative poll of Americans conducted by Consumer Reports earlier this year found that 86 percent want their local supermarkets to carry meat raised without antibiotics, and the majority said they'd be willing to pay extra for that feature.
The scope of this paper was limited the facts of whether better nutrition actually exists in organic foods, which turns out not to be the case. That organic is actually better for the environment for many crops in many regions is not a limitation of the study but totally orthogonal to anything it was trying to do.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:29 PM on October 4, 2012


phosphorous is not an element that people in the western world are especially lacking in

People in the "western world," broadly speaking, are lacking in very few nutrients overall.

there is no evidence for organically labeled food as having any nutritional benefits or conventionally grown food as having any proven health risks...

Doesn't make the precautionary principle crazy.

this paper was limited the facts of whether better nutrition actually exists in organic foods, which turns out not to be the case

Boy, i don't think you can definitively say "not the case." Extrapolates wayyyy too much. All you can say is that this study did not indicate a connection between increased nutrition and organic food.
posted by Miko at 11:29 PM on October 4, 2012


"Doesn't make the precautionary principle crazy."

Absolutely not, but the precautionary principle is already being applied to conventional agriculture. There is a reason organic minded folks say pesticides not some list of specific pesticides, they get a lot less scary when you look at the individual ones.

"Boy, i don't think you can definitively say "not the case." Extrapolates wayyyy too much. All you can say is that this study did not indicate a connection between increased nutrition and organic food."

The actual paper is pretty convincing, and I think easily supports that kind of strength of a statement. The meat of it is statistics heavy - and the weird kinds of statistics that deal with subtly different kinds of evidence at the same time, but it has plenty of immediately accessible pretty pictures. I haven't gotten any requests for it so far, but I've got it open now and am very happy to send it to anyone who asks - for the purposes of this academic discussion that we are currently having of course.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:38 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


the precautionary principle is already being applied to conventional agriculture

Not by anyone I trust. It's fine for people to make personal decisions about what they're willing to ingest. I don't think it's reasonable to expect that someone else is taking into account everything we as individuals take into account when choosing what to eat.

I've lived long enough to see government approval on many additives and agricultural inputs and drugs change. I don't think our regulatory structure is sufficiently incentivized, well-funded and accountable to protect us perfectly, and I don't imagine that we have a perfect understanding of - or adequate ongoing review process for - the use of compounds that have existed for under 100 years.

I'm not interested in reading the paper. I don't have time, and it wouldn't change my behavior. My point is that if the paper wants to talk about not being able to detect increase levels of nutrients in the food, and the scope remains that narrow, that's fine, and it's not a point I'm going to wildly contest. But to leap from that to say that all food additives and pesticides are certainly perfectly safe and have no health impacts is a leap too far. Also, as others have noted, it's beside the point. Eating organic food is as much about the health of the soil, the water, agricultural workers and living things in the ecosystem as it is about individual health.
posted by Miko at 12:48 PM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


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