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Fruit Flies at the Whole Foods
April 18, 2013 10:30 AM   Subscribe

"Is organic produce better for you?" is a simple question asked by a middle schooler in a science fair. Using fruit flies fed organic vs. conventional produce, Ria Chhabra tracked the flies and saw improvements based on their diet. Now barely a sophomore in high school, the project lead to university research labs, science fair awards, publication in top-tier peer-reviewed journals, and quite likely, scholarships at her pick of top-flight universities.
posted by mathowie (90 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Today I am glad to have titles on the front page so that I saw this gem.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:34 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Is organic produce better for you fruitflies?"

Is it really surprising that produce treated with chemicals to kill insects is harmful to insects? I'm still reading the paper, though.
posted by muddgirl at 10:35 AM on April 18, 2013 [57 favorites]


Mudgirl beat me to it.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:36 AM on April 18, 2013


Awesome. I'd love to see her Vitamin C content experiment expanded to veggies raised in one's own garden, where presumably you haven't chosen the variety for shelf life.
posted by DU at 10:36 AM on April 18, 2013


Is it really surprising that produce treated with chemicals to kill insects but it is claimed the chemicals have been washed away or have been broken down is still harmful to insects?
posted by DU at 10:38 AM on April 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


but it is claimed the chemicals have been washed away or have been broken down

Toxicity of chemicals for a fly will be much, much, much lower than toxicity for humans, as they are much smaller. Too, chemical formulations that are toxic to flies may be harmless to humans. Like I said, I am still digesting the paper so maybe this is addressed. Any project that demonstrates the scientific method is a good science fair project - that doesn't mean that the title claim is a valid scientific claim.
posted by muddgirl at 10:40 AM on April 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


Oh, that is just the coolest thing ever. I'd have hated to be a reviewer on that paper. "Here's this fruit fly paper that might be a little different from what you're used to seeing... oh, and by the way the first author is 14." No pressure.

Super, super awesome. My only worry is that, by the time my toddler's looking to head to college, you won't be able to get into the top two tiers of schools unless you're published in PLoSOne or better.
posted by gurple at 10:41 AM on April 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


(What I mean is that pesticides may be washed away or broken down sufficient for human safety but still be toxic to insects.)
posted by muddgirl at 10:41 AM on April 18, 2013


You know, it's great that high school students are doing stuff like this, but it's not a very good study. I read it weeks ago and I'm actually surprised PLOS published it. It's poorly designed and the results aren't reasonably explained (the pesticide part barely gets a word in the actual paper).

Some things that make its results (and any claims about human consumption of organic food) less than convincing are:

* Fruits fed to the flies were selected from only single grocery stores, so we're likely using single cultivars grown in single fields (e.g. some organic grower and some conventional grower on their particular fields). Nutritional content varies a bit depending on field environment (this is true for any growing method).
* Cultivar isn't controlled. It's not uncommon for the preferred cultivars in organic production to be different than in conventional (unlikely for banana). Cultivars have differences in nutrients and other chemicals that may affect how flies grow.
* All experimental flies did worse than the flies fed lab diets (the controls) suggesting that all the experimental diets were nutritionally deficient. The fact that it isn't a broad sample of fruits from different growers in different regions, etc. means even small variations (irrelevant to the question of organic vs conventional) could have impact.
* As noted, pesticide residues are not measured or controlled (though plants also naturally have pesticides as well, some of which are harmful to fruit flies). The amounts that may remain on those fruits are harmless to humans, but maybe not to flies, especially flies being fed a nutritionally deficient diet.
* Flies are not humans. It's not a reasonable experimental model and says nothing about whether organic food is better for you.

And that's just what I remember after reading the paper weeks ago. I'm sure if I went back and looked at it, I would remember more. It's really not a good paper. It's awesome a very young student is doing stuff like this, but they needed better guidance to get good results.
posted by R343L at 10:43 AM on April 18, 2013 [32 favorites]


5 reasons organic is better
posted by stbalbach at 10:44 AM on April 18, 2013


The flies in the photo accompanying the article are Tephritid Fruit flies, true fruit flies, and not the fruit flies that she studied (Drosophila)
posted by dhruva at 10:44 AM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Is it really surprising that produce treated with chemicals to kill insects is harmful to insects?

It can also be harmful to humans, should those humans be the ones applying the pesticide, or living alongside fields where the pesticide is applied, or drinking water from sources contaminated by the pesticide. It's not just "it won't hurt you if you eat it."
posted by rtha at 10:48 AM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Glad others are addressing the issues with this paper. Organic produce was obtained through Whole Foods, identified through NOP labeling. However I've heard there's a lot of sketchiness and little regulation in what's identified as "organic" or not. Can someone more familiar with distinguishing organic from non-organic clarify?
posted by schroedinger at 10:50 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


All we can with great certainty at this point is that organic foods costs more than non-organic and they don't even have to buy pesticides for organic so why does it cost more?
posted by Postroad at 10:51 AM on April 18, 2013


I just finished it and I agree with R343L. As I said, a good middle school science fair project asks a question, designs an experiement, and conducts the experiment. In that way this is a grade A science fair project. But it's unfortunate that it will be used by laypersons as Scientific Proof that organic is healthier than not-organic, even though the paper does not demonstrate that.

It can also be harmful to humans

Oh sure - my point is that pesticides aren't addressed in this study at all, which is a very glaring issue. The fruit should have been tested for pesticide levels first, before trying to study which fruit has a healthier nutritional profile. Again, understandably out of the scope of a school science project.
posted by muddgirl at 10:51 AM on April 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


the project lead to university research labs, science fair awards, publication in top-tier peer-reviewed journals, and quite likely, scholarships at her pick of top-flight universities.

Yeah, one of these things is not like the others. Good for her, though.
posted by Huck500 at 10:52 AM on April 18, 2013


All we can with great certainty at this point is that organic foods costs more than non-organic ...

ur doin' it rong
posted by DU at 10:52 AM on April 18, 2013


schroedinger: We don't know a lot about organic. There's no consistent inspection or testing. Though that's going to change. More from a Applied Mythology.
posted by R343L at 10:53 AM on April 18, 2013


5 reasons organic is better

There's a thread a couple of days old about how foolish anti-drug PSAs were to peddle so many easily debunked lies about relatively harmless drugs because once people saw that these were lies they assumed everything was a lie. There's something similar at work in a lot of the advocacy one sees for organic produce. I think there's a really strong case to be made for organic produce (or "near organic" in some instances) in terms of the environmental degradation perpetrated by much conventional agriculture, but any casual consumer of information about organic produce must feel like almost everyone involved in peddling it is just incapable of critical thinking--at best--and downright fraudulent at worst. So many of the claims (like most of the five listed in stbalbach's linked article) have been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked or are simply unproven. Again and again and again when people do well-controlled studies the claims made on behalf of organic produce as healthier or better tasting just do not hold up. In the long run I can't help but think that the continual pushing of these highly dubious claims is going to do organic farming a disservice.
posted by yoink at 10:53 AM on April 18, 2013 [27 favorites]


The fruit should have been tested for pesticide levels first, before trying to study which fruit has a healthier nutritional profile.

Alternatively, if this research was already done, it could have been cited and addressed.
posted by muddgirl at 10:53 AM on April 18, 2013


Postroad: Organic is more expensive because, primarily, it gets lower yields than conventional (a few crops get near parity with conventional, but most are anywhere from 50-80% of conventional yields). That's primarily because organic growers use fewer and less effective pest (insects, weeds, etc.) control methods. But they do use them. One of the worst pesticides are copper sulfates (due to runoff and heavy metals) and they are allowed for organic (and until a few years ago, rotenone was allowed which is fairly awful).
posted by R343L at 10:55 AM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Organic is more expensive because, primarily, it gets lower yields than conventional

I understand the logic but that's like saying athlete salaries drive ticket prices: one doesn't have anything to do with the other. Outside of a monopoly position, you can't set prices based on the cost of your inputs. If organic produce were perceived to have the exact same benefits as the giant store-brand steroid veggies, they'd cost the same*. The prices are higher because buyers are willing to pay more for something about the "organic" label, which is why it's important to figure out the real benefits and to come up with some kind of standard that explains what the term means.

* And Giant Supermarket Chain wouldn't be stocking a storebrand organic option.
posted by yerfatma at 11:10 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sure, all you adult scientific-type smart people pile on the 14 year old for her amateur science experiment. When I was 14, I tried feeding bean plants caffeine pills. ALL of the plants died. I thought I was doing big ole smart testing stuff about the major effects of caffeine on biologic living things. It was my first foray into actual scientific experimenting. Turns out I just suck at gardening. (My husband is now in charge of our houseplants.)

But the point of the experiment was to teach students how to create and complete a scientific experiment, complete with writing a paper about your findings. The *process* of the experiment was the goal, not actual scientific discoveries.

The flip side is that it is also good to have exposure to real-life scientific review of the paper so that she can see ways to improve her experiment, make it more repeatable, and make it more valuable for future action, if necessary.

So, YAY for smart kids trying new science things about current event topics!
posted by jillithd at 11:12 AM on April 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


I would have called this thread "Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like an organic banana."
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:19 AM on April 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


Man, I really hate how "organic" is more a shibboleth than an actual indicator of quality or safety or nutrition. It's just this really inexact proxy that has been developed as a putative alternative to industrial agriculture that ends up having all sorts of unverifiable magical thinking attached to it.

Like, the idea that "organic food tastes better." Well, no, generally cultivars developed for long shelf life and easy transport taste worse, but that doesn't have a whole lot to do with how they're grown. For example, you can get pretty tasty hydroponic tomatoes, which are pretty much the opposite of organic, and you can get pretty bland organic beefsteaks.

The label "organic" is inexact from both sides — there are plenty of small farms who don't pay to get the testing and certification of "organic" that have functionally equivalent crops, and there are plenty of huge agri-conglomerates whose "organic" certification doesn't really mean that much (Organic Valley).

In the end, I just feel like "organic" ends up being used as an excuse to charge yuppies an extra couple of bucks to not have to think that much about the total food chain or agricultural policy; it's a magic charm intoned seriously and people come up with all sorts of specious justifications for that magic effect.
posted by klangklangston at 11:19 AM on April 18, 2013 [14 favorites]


Getting young people interested in STEM (specifically young girls) is a huge priority for a lot of academics and academic journals, so I'd say that disregarding some aspects of the research (like not addressing the pesticide issue) were ignored in favor of a perceived greater good.

The last link in the FPP has her speaking directly about her experiences, which is the most interesting part IMO. I bet her science teacher is very proud.
posted by codacorolla at 11:21 AM on April 18, 2013


I think it's great for kids to learn about the process of science. But when I first read this paper I skipped over the authors (I usually do) and didn't realize it was a high school student. I wondered why such a poorly done paper was published (and why so many outlets were pushing it as saying something about organic food and humans -- NYT was not the first). In other words, there were co-authors on that paper that were supposed to be there to ensure the quality of the result is better than just a (admittedly better than typical) high school student project. This paper will get held up for years as proof that organic food is better for you even though it adds little (possibly nothing) to what we know about the effects of how foods are grown on human health.
posted by R343L at 11:21 AM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


To add: I think it's about as helpful as the "artisanal" label that gets applied to all sorts of shit as a putative marker of quality, like fucking Dominos having "artisanal" pizzas. I hate "artisanal" more than "organic," but they're both commodified dissent by this point.
posted by klangklangston at 11:21 AM on April 18, 2013


It's sad enough so many people going to bat for EnormoChemCorp but then doing it in the name of science is just icing on the failcake.

Humans got along just fine without this stuff for literally millenia. Most of the famines and crop failures that did happen either did so due to lack of water (which no amount of -icides is going to fix) or monoculture planting (e.g. Irish potato famine and similar epidemics).

It's the classic trap. You are doing fine most of the time, but there's some small area you could use help with. You do that. You (or your descendents) start relying on that and no longer know how to do without it. Suddenly that "solution" is everywhere and it's a crisis.
posted by DU at 11:23 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I understand the logic but that's like saying athlete salaries drive ticket prices: one doesn't have anything to do with the other. Outside of a monopoly position, you can't set prices based on the cost of your inputs. If organic produce were perceived to have the exact same benefits as the giant store-brand steroid veggies, they'd cost the same*. The prices are higher because buyers are willing to pay more for something about the "organic" label, which is why it's important to figure out the real benefits and to come up with some kind of standard that explains what the term means.

You'd be wrong to discount R343L's point. Organics having lower yields may cost more because the farmer still has to make a living, while having lower productivity. In other fields, he may go out of business because his competitors simply do a better job. In the world of organics, customers are willing to pay more for whatever perceived benefit. So the farmer can indulge a less productive crop and still survive in the marketplace.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:24 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The difference in outcomes among the flies fed different diets could be due to the effects of pesticide and fungicide residue from conventionally raised foods.

Guess what? Organic farmers use pesticides and fungicides, too.

It is absolutely false that "organic" means "pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide-free". Organic farmers are free to use such products. The only restriction is that such products must not be synthetic. Rotenone and pyrethrins are two notable examples of organic pesticides.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:24 AM on April 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


This is an awesome science experiment for a middle schooler, but it's weird to see it championed as if it was the same thing as research science. We devalue science when we lower the standards this way.

Since it's NOT good enough science to justify peer-review publication, one has to wonder why it's being published anyway. And one credible answer is that it tickles the pro-organic prejudices of the New York Times crowd. (Which includes me, but I know I'm a type.) in that sense, she's lucky to have hit on widespread confirmation bias with a human interest angle.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:25 AM on April 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


As for the cost thing, obviously you can't sell organic food for higher even if your costs are higher unless consumers are willing to buy it. But some are. Large numbers of consumers believe organic is better for the environment (actual impact is mixed, primarily because of land use questions), that it's more nutritious (more and greater nutrients), it's safer (fewer pesticides), etc. But the reason producers need to sell it for higher is because of their costs.

And no, people didn't get along just fine before modern agriculture. Or rather, most of us here wouldn't be on metafilter without modern agricultural methods (including fertilizers and pesticides) because most of us wouldn't be alive at all and most of the rest of us would be working as subsidence farmers.
posted by R343L at 11:25 AM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


"It's sad enough so many people going to bat for EnormoChemCorp but then doing it in the name of science is just icing on the failcake. "

It's sad enough that do-gooder commenters misrepresent criticism of this article to be stanning for EnormoChemCorp, but that they do it without a basic knowledge of science is just icing on the failcake.
posted by klangklangston at 11:25 AM on April 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's the classic trap. You are doing fine most of the time, but there's some small area you could use help with. You do that. You (or your descendents) start relying on that and no longer know how to do without it. Suddenly that "solution" is everywhere and it's a crisis.

Damn you, dirt busters. Everything was fine for us hunter-gatherers until you had to go invent your dumb old plow.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:28 AM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Organic farming in the US takes place in a context where it is still something of an outlying activity within a system of chemical- and energy-intensive agriculture which has become ingrained over the course of a century. When talking about costs and practicality, it's interesting for contrast to look at how it works in a different context, one in which it has become the norm.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:32 AM on April 18, 2013


Organic, with respect to food, has to do with treating our planet better. Organic on a food label does not, nor was never intended to imply anything about wholesomeness or nutritional value. We buy organic in the hope that the land is treated better, which in turn means that water runoff will not be contaminated with the chemicals that resulted in the fertilizer factory explosion in Texas.
posted by breadbox at 11:33 AM on April 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


You'd be wrong to discount R343L's point.

It's strange that you say this and then re-state my point. I'm not seeing the difference.
posted by yerfatma at 11:35 AM on April 18, 2013


So many of the claims (like most of the five listed in stbalbach's linked article) have been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked or are simply unproven. Again and again and again when people do well-controlled studies the claims made on behalf of organic produce as healthier or better tasting just do not hold up.

Has this study been debunked?

Evaluation of the micronutrient composition of plant foods produced by organic and conventional agricultural methods.
the absolute levels of micronutrients were higher in organic foods more often than in conventional foods (462 vs 364 comparisons, P=0.002), and the total micronutrient content, expressed as a percent difference, was higher in organic (+5.7%, P 0.001) as compared to conventionally grown produce.
Has this study been debunked?

Fertilisation and pesticides affect mandarin orange nutrient composition
Significant differences between the use of fertiliser and pesticides during fruit formation were observed, and included changes in sugar, amino acid and organic acid composition.
I think anyone who across the board says "thoroughly and repeatedly debunked or are simply unproven" isn't really conversant with the body of research which is quite large and beyond the scope of MeFi other than to cherry pick studies and play with confirmation biases.
posted by stbalbach at 11:35 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's sad enough so many people going to bat for EnormoChemCorp but then doing it in the name of science is just icing on the failcake.

God forbid someone demand scientific rigor. GOD FORBID. You're right, man. We're being paid off by Monsanto.
posted by schroedinger at 11:36 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's strange that you say this and then re-state my point. I'm not seeing the difference.

That's because your point isn't wrong. It's incomplete.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:36 AM on April 18, 2013


So, YAY for smart kids trying new science things about current event topics!

As I've said two or three times - it's a great science fair project. That doesn't make it a good scientific paper (some blame for that rests on the PLOS editor and peer reviewers, who should have raised the same points as R343L), and it shouldn't be presented as such in non-scientific publications to people who don't have the time, skills, or inclination to evaluate the paper on its merits.
posted by muddgirl at 11:37 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, wouldn't it be nice if food prices and availability were at least comparatively insulated from energy shocks? It's not as if we don't have enough intrinsic problems with food security relating to climate, topsoil loss and ecological damage without the geopolitical and economic morass of energy security impacting it as well.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:37 AM on April 18, 2013


In the end, I just feel like "organic" ends up being used as an excuse to charge yuppies an extra couple of bucks to not have to think that much about the total food chain or agricultural policy

I get it. Everyone should eat like you eat. I'm not even being sarcastic -- I presume that you take the time to get to know your food chain, eat locally and sustainably, and what not. That's what I do. Everyone should eat like you eat.

Now, given that that is never ever ever going to happen (barring apocalypse), what do you propose for the rest of the citizenry that is better than the current state of the "organic" label?
posted by gurple at 11:38 AM on April 18, 2013


Labels that took into account a wider variety of impacts (and assessed them scientifically rather than arbitrarily) would be far better than organic labeling. You can read one proposal at Biofortified.

stbalbach: Those are papers about single studies of single crops grown in particular conditions. Meta-analysis of nutrition of organic versus conventional show no consistent difference between them. Factors like cultivar grown, water, soil quality, etc. are far more important to nutrients than arbitrary restrictions on pesticides and fertilizer use (which is the effective meaning of "organic" for most organic products on the market).
posted by R343L at 11:41 AM on April 18, 2013


Actually I stand corrected. That first one is a meta-analysis. I've seen several others that come to a different conclusion though.
posted by R343L at 11:47 AM on April 18, 2013


"I get it. Everyone should eat like you eat. I'm not even being sarcastic -- I presume that you take the time to get to know your food chain, eat locally and sustainably, and what not. That's what I do. Everyone should eat like you eat.

Now, given that that is never ever ever going to happen (barring apocalypse), what do you propose for the rest of the citizenry that is better than the current state of the "organic" label?
"

Lobby for better air and water quality regulations, better zoning regulations, better agricultural policies (including reducing subsidies to industrial farms), and to be skeptical of the claims of "organic" advocates.

Really, like, having reported on an upcoming master plan revision for Tulare County in California, people don't get how much power local government has in setting agricultural (and labor) policy with regard to farming. Ten more people giving a shit about that and showing up at a zoning commission meeting will be worth more than 100 people buying organic. Hell, most of the worst excesses in fertilizer and pesticides aren't even from produce — they're from industrial grain and feed growers, the people that make the corn that ends up in your tortillas, not the apples in your lunch.

Regulations on particulate matter and groundwater testing will raise the price of food, but save lives. Buying organic? Meh.
posted by klangklangston at 11:48 AM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


OK, let me rephrase. What we have today, for the vast majority of people who just simply aren't going to take the hours per week necessary to really give a crap about where their food comes from, is the organic label. That's what we've got, with all its warts. You and I and a lot of people would like to see a lot of things change about that situation, probably starting with policy at both local and national levels.

All that said, I don't see the need to sneer at yuppies who buy organic rather than not buying organic.
posted by gurple at 11:52 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Is organic produce better for you?"

I buy it mainly because I believe it's better for the Earth. I love the Earth.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:53 AM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Someone make an argument that buying non-organic food from your supermarket is somehow morally superior to buying organic food. Please. I feel like you're almost there, and I'd just love to see you go for it.
posted by gurple at 12:00 PM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


muddgirl has well and truly beaten me to it, raising most or all of the issues I would have raised. This paper doesn't actually tell you even what it thinks it's telling you.

So why is it getting national attention? Because it's telling us what we want to hear. The idea that expensive organic food is better for you than the cheap mass-produced kind is an idea that people really like. And analysis tends to get shortchanged when someone is purporting to be doing science, and arriving at conclusions you agree with.

In actual truth, this is closer to SCIENCE!, in the Metafilter sense.
posted by Malor at 12:08 PM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


the only problem with organic labeling is in some of the labeling is not subject to close enough regulation. As a concept to point towards better product. It is used as a shorthand, and really the only crime committed by those so using it is they may not have to time to track down the chain and process of every product on the shelf.

Yeah, you know some stuff not labeled organic will be better, both process wise and taste wise then some stuff so labeled. That is a result of a few things, smaller outfits have a harder time getting the certification, so they might be using just as good or better practices than bigger outfits but not have the label, as well there are loopholes and some level of loopholes that let some questionable stuff through that should not.

I love it when people come in and slag on those who dare to buy organic labels as unthinking yuppies willing to be overcharged, as if these are horrible naive people who are just too lazy to do the science. Rather than, say someone who hopes what they are buying is not the same old shit. That we hope processes are changing so we don't quite cause as much harm as we have traditionally. Obviously there is no significant benefit to lettuce raised twenty miles from me, or even 200 miles from me that seeks to reduce the amount of water and pesticides used rather than the iceberg California stuff shipped in from a few thousand miles away. I just haven't done the science to prove it yet.
posted by edgeways at 12:18 PM on April 18, 2013


I've seen several others that come to a different conclusion though.

On micronutrients? To clarify, point #2 of the "5 reasons organic is better" says organic is better on micronutrients (not macro like A,B,C..) and the study linked above is concerning micronutrients.
posted by stbalbach at 12:23 PM on April 18, 2013


codacorolla: Getting young people interested in STEM (specifically young girls) is a huge priority for a lot of academics and academic journals, so I'd say that disregarding some aspects of the research (like not addressing the pesticide issue) were ignored in favor of a perceived greater good.

On the other hand, publishing a study that doesn't sound rigorous or complete makes the journal look like it'll publish anything, which isn't good for their reputation. And since PLOS One is one of the largest open-access journals, it could weaken the open access journal movement. Hell, I was actually thinking of submitting something to them, and now I'm kind of not.

Also, I have a lot of difficulty believing this study was actually run by a 14-year old. Not the other aspects of it beyond the initial experiment, like qPCR or the statistical component. I also have a really hard time believing she wrote it herself. You cannot possibly convince me that "We therefore tested whether organic fed flies have lower levels of insulin-signaling activity by investigating the mRNA levels of several genes involved in gluconeogenesis, such as glycogen-synthase 3 (GSK3), phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (PEPCK), glucose-6-phosphatase (G6Pase) and fructose-1,6-bisphosphatase (F1,6BPase)" was legitimately written by a 14-year old. Not one who hasn't already graduated from a university.

So, it's basically a stunt paper, almost certainly mostly done and written by other people. I really wish people wouldn't do this; yeah, it might help motivate a few people, but it diminishes the actual accomplishment involved in really being the author of a scientific paper, and it raises the expectation for legitimate students to unachievable levels. It's like the science fair project from the kid whose father works at NASA - you know they didn't do it themselves and it destroys the ability of the kids who don't have other people to do their work for them to compete.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:31 PM on April 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Someone make an argument that buying non-organic food from your supermarket is somehow morally superior to buying organic food. Please. I feel like you're almost there, and I'd just love to see you go for it.

As someone who does not make an effort to buy organic food, why would I make that argument? I don't use the type of oranges I buy as the basis for status whoring.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:34 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Agreed with muddgirl and R343L. This is a good project, but I'm amazed PLoS accepted this, for the already stated reasons. Cynically, I think they just wanted the attention that this is sure to bring. It seems like a stunt on everyone's part.

And to justify my username, more quibbles:

- That's an awfully low N for flies
- Also how do I know TJ's didn't happen to restock organic stuff that day but not the conventional stuff? You gotta go on a lot of days, to a lot of stores, to get a lot of samples
- It's not just amt of residual pesticides left, it's also the kind; organic produce have a different list of chemicals you can spray on them - some of which are quite bad, as others have noted - and flies likely have different sensitivities to different pesticides. Which may/may not have any bearing on how humans deal with them.
- Could be attributed simply to nutritional density, but I don't see a mass spec chromatogram anywhere. I remember a study somewhere showing the authors could distinguish organic vs non-organic in several veggies based on measuring a bunch of metabolites. If the researcher runs another iteration where they normalize produce puree per gram of food to some kind of baseline, things might turn out differently. Or not! We don't know! That's the kind of thing you're supposed to think of and test -- not the 14-year-old, but whoever her PI was. The grown-up scientist should've known better, but didn't, which kind of irritates me.
posted by aperturescientist at 12:46 PM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


"OK, let me rephrase. What we have today, for the vast majority of people who just simply aren't going to take the hours per week necessary to really give a crap about where their food comes from, is the organic label. That's what we've got, with all its warts. You and I and a lot of people would like to see a lot of things change about that situation, probably starting with policy at both local and national levels.

All that said, I don't see the need to sneer at yuppies who buy organic rather than not buying organic.
"

So, wait, you're basically saying that because you exclude everything else as impossible, that doing what we're doing is the best option?

Well, here's one thing that people could be doing differently: Not wasting their time trying to prove through dubious science that their diet is morally superior, and use that energy to actually do something productive.

"Someone make an argument that buying non-organic food from your supermarket is somehow morally superior to buying organic food. Please. I feel like you're almost there, and I'd just love to see you go for it."

What the hell are you even on about?

Here's an argument: If you're poor, you'll probably get more utility out of buying conventional produce with an eye to local or quality ingredients than you will by worrying about what's organic and what's not, especially if you spend that extra money to free up time to, say, contact your local government about zoning policies, etc.

But what you seem to be trying to accomplish is to get a little pat on the head and told that you're all OK because yay organic, just like people want to be told that changing their Facebook icon is enough to support equality for LGBT people. It's too often a social marker with little actual utility for the broader food goals that it putatively supports. And you're willing to argue against things that no one is saying in order to justify that pat on the head.
posted by klangklangston at 12:58 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think anyone who across the board says "thoroughly and repeatedly debunked or are simply unproven" isn't really conversant with the body of research which is quite large and beyond the scope of MeFi other than to cherry pick studies and play with confirmation biases.

I think you're taking this the worst possible way. The problem with the studies you linked isn't the studies, it's the word "organic": unless what they're calling "organic" is exactly what my local grocery store hews to when labeling their produce, it's not a perfect match. I can't imagine there are too many people in this thread who would disagree with the idea food grown "organically"/ out of your own garden is better for you in the main; for me, the problem is the word itself which has been co-opted by companies looking to make a profit. Here are the standards for the New Hampshire and there are at least three separate labels listed. Here are the certification program details*. I have no idea what any of it amounts to and if I drive 30 minutes in either direction different state laws would apply.

Whoa, did not expect to find the state still using the site I built in the early '00s. Throwback, and not in a good way since it apparently got thrown into Dreamweaver at a later date and all my innovative 508 compliance/ XHTML/ CSS work went away.
posted by yerfatma at 12:59 PM on April 18, 2013


So, it's basically a stunt paper, almost certainly mostly done and written by other people. I really wish people wouldn't do this; yeah, it might help motivate a few people, but it diminishes the actual accomplishment involved in really being the author of a scientific paper, and it raises the expectation for legitimate students to unachievable levels. It's like the science fair project from the kid whose father works at NASA - you know they didn't do it themselves and it destroys the ability of the kids who don't have other people to do their work for them to compete.

I basically agree, although I'm not familiar with the field. I think the intent was nobler than the outcome.
posted by codacorolla at 12:59 PM on April 18, 2013


Yerfatma, I always thought the organic label had to meet federal guidelines, with assessment being completed by private organizations certified to make the call one way or another.

Am I wrong? You make it seem like it's a free-for-all, with states and local governments coming up with wildly divergent definitions of what organic is, rather than a single federal-level definition/set of guidelines.
posted by jsturgill at 1:11 PM on April 18, 2013


So why is it getting national attention?

Because it's about a cute fourteen year old ostensibly punching above her weight.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:34 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


It can also be harmful to humans, should those humans be the ones applying the pesticide, or living alongside fields where the pesticide is applied, or drinking water from sources contaminated by the pesticide. It's not just "it won't hurt you if you eat it."

For all the foofaraw here, that's the rub. The most important thing about organic food is not about whether it's safer for you. It's safer for the food workers.

The idea that expensive organic food is better for you than the cheap mass-produced kind is an idea that people really like.

... the people who would "really like" that idea are the people who buy organic food, which is the vast minority of grocery shoppers ... and of course the organic-food producers, who are surely not without influence.

prove through dubious science that their diet is morally superior

A diet of organic food is morally superior to a diet of pesticide-laced food. In the latter, you are doing real harm to workers and residents affected by pesticide use. No "dubious science" required.

I think the onus is on organic critics to show how organic food processing is as detrimental to food workers as conventional food processing (or why that should not be a concern for consumers), because the evidence seems pretty clear that pesticides make farm workers sick.

No?
posted by mrgrimm at 1:36 PM on April 18, 2013


I think the onus is on organic critics to show how organic food processing is as detrimental to food workers as conventional food processing (or why that should not be a concern for consumers), because the evidence seems pretty clear that pesticides make farm workers sick.

Since organic farmers can and do use pesticides, I think the onus is on organic advocates to explain why they argue as if organic farmers do not use pesticides.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:46 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


gurple said

>Someone make an argument that buying non-organic food from your supermarket is somehow morally superior to buying organic food. Please. I feel like you're almost there, and I'd just love to see you go for it.

Sure, i'll bite, as devil's advocate.

Ethically it's a pretty easy argument to make with 1/4 of the worlds population near starvation and a vast majority of the arable land on earth being used for food production, is it ethical to intentionally reduce yields by 20%, knowing people will die because of this?

or tldr: people who eat organic are intentionally killing third world babies.

:)
posted by darkfred at 1:47 PM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Someone make an argument that buying non-organic food from your supermarket is somehow morally superior to buying organic food. Please. I feel like you're almost there, and I'd just love to see you go for it.

I will.

By eating the food that poor people eat, drinking the same tap water and using public services I am part of consumer base that helps protect and raise the standards of those things for everyone. Those who buy organic foods are using their relative wealth to opt out of a commons and abandon those less well off to their own fate.

But then I went to a public school in a country with single payer single tier healthcare and state run universities so what do I really know about the importance of status and morality signalling in the U.S.?
posted by srboisvert at 1:49 PM on April 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


On micronutrients? To clarify, point #2 of the "5 reasons organic is better" says organic is better on micronutrients (not macro like A,B,C..) and the study linked above is concerning micronutrients.

Yes, and the final sentence of the abstract is this: "Further research is required to determine the effect of organic agricultural methods on a broader range of nutrients and their potential impact on health." In other words, nobody knows, tiddly-pom, if these differences in micronutrients have any health implications at all. See the "or are simply unproven" part of my initial comment.
posted by yoink at 1:50 PM on April 18, 2013


Since organic farmers can and do use pesticides

Are you talking about biological pesticides? If so, that's a pretty spurious argument.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:11 PM on April 18, 2013


Are you talking about biological pesticides? If so, that's a pretty spurious argument.

I am not sure what you mean by "biological pesticides", but I was specifically thinking of compounds such as rotenone, which I have mentioned in a previous comment. I am not talking about nematodes or baking soda.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:34 PM on April 18, 2013


PLOSOne is absolutely not a top flight journal. It is explicitly a rapid-turnover venue which evaluates for technical adequacy and not relevance or place in the larger literature. Nobody is expected to read PLOSOne; it is a place to put things so that search engines will find them and you can cite them. It's supposed to be a cure for the file drawer.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 2:44 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I would say that P1 is high variance - there's some stuff that's very high quality and some that is of (I think) pretty marginal significance. You really have to take it paper by paper.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:51 PM on April 18, 2013


"A diet of organic food is morally superior to a diet of pesticide-laced food. In the latter, you are doing real harm to workers and residents affected by pesticide use. No "dubious science" required."

But those aren't clear, unblemished distinctions. Not being labelled organic and pesticide-laced aren't the only options, and, as Tanizaki linked upthread, some of the allowed pesticides have serious health implications for field workers. Which is why restrictions on pesticide use are a better policy goal than increases in "organic" farming.

Look, I have nothing against eating organic, it's just a noisy standard that is too often used as a magical symbol instead of recognizing its limits. But I think I've said that already, so I'm going to bow out for a while unless there's something that I haven't been clear on.
posted by klangklangston at 2:53 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies lika a banana.
posted by jan murray at 3:01 PM on April 18, 2013


Yerfatma, I always thought the organic label had to meet federal guidelines . . . Am I wrong?

I have no idea and I apologize if I made it sound like I did. I was just responding to what I thought was a misunderstanding that was creating a needless tangent. I'd love to know the answer to this; my understanding (and it's definitely out-dated) was that the label was close to a free-for-all. If it's not, why does NH have its own guidelines?
posted by yerfatma at 3:42 PM on April 18, 2013


I'm terribly confused. Despite their name, Drosophila aren't true fruit flies, they are better called vinegar flies (not that anyone does this). This is for the simple reason that, unlike true fruit flies, Drosophila doesn't eat fruit, it eats yeasts and various things found on rotting or fermenting fruit (this is why they are attracted to vinegar and wine). If anything, I would imagine fly survival curves are just a proxy measure for something like yeast growth or fermentation rate, factors that will be different due perhaps to pesticides, but also to produce varietal, growth conditions, picking date, and handling conditions.

I mean, it's a good experiment for a 14 year old — yay young people learning science by doing! — but man I don't know how that got into PLoS One.
posted by Schismatic at 3:59 PM on April 18, 2013


Yerfatma, on a closer look at the page you linked, the answer is clear:
WHAT THIS LABEL MEANS:
The New Hampshire Department of Agriculture and Foods has been certifying products as organic since 1989 and is accredited as an organic certifier by the USDA.

All organic certifiers must be accredited by the USDA. Only products containing at least 95% organic ingredients may display the USDA Organic seal in addition to the certifier’s logo.

Standard Requirements for Organic Production

All organic labels on food (except seafood) must meet the same USDA standards. See below for exceptions for personal care products and fish. All products (food, personal care products, clothing, etc.) displaying the USDA Organic seal are produced according to the same federal organic standards.
Nothing special about their rules and regs. They're just another certifier. It's the same standard in every state.
posted by jsturgill at 4:20 PM on April 18, 2013


Humans got along just fine without this stuff for literally millenia.
Indeed, hundreds of millions of humans got along just fine.

We're trying to feed billions now. Crop yields going up six-fold is helping.
posted by roystgnr at 4:40 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


5 reasons for choosing organic :

Food you can trust - You can be safe in the knowledge that hydrogenated fats and controversial additives like aspartame, tartrazine and MSG are banned under organic standards.

Better for the environment - Organic farming reduces pollution and greenhouse gases released from food production by restricting the use of artificial chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Wildlife protection - Organic farms are havens for wildlife and provide homes for bees, birds and butterflies. In fact, plant, insect and bird life is up to 50% greater on organic farms.

Higher animal welfare - Organic standards insist that animals are given plenty of space and fresh air to thrive and grow - guaranteeing a truly free-range life.

A GM free diet - GM crops and ingredients are banned under organic standards. Choosing organic is an effective way to avoid GM in your diet.
posted by Lanark at 4:44 PM on April 18, 2013


Reason number 5 is exactly what we're talking abou when we say "noise", Lanark. It's a dog whistle. It says nothing about why GM might be something to avoid. It just puts GM up there as a nasty boogie-man, no questions asked. The pesticides thing is similar - there's nothing magical about "biological pesticides" and there's nothing inherently evil about "artificial" or "chemicals". Go chug a bottle of pyrethrin and see how you feel, and then stop taking those nasty artificial chemical medications.
posted by Jimbob at 5:41 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


But the point of the experiment was to teach students how to create and complete a scientific experiment, complete with writing a paper about your findings. The *process* of the experiment was the goal, not actual scientific discoveries.

But adults seem to be treating it as if it were an actual scientific discovery.

No one has a problem with this:
"Is organic produce better for you?" is a simple question asked by a middle schooler in a science fair. Using fruit flies fed organic vs. conventional produce, Ria Chhabra tracked the flies and saw improvements based on their diet.
People have a problem with this:
Now barely a sophomore in high school, the project lead to university research labs, science fair awards, publication in top-tier peer-reviewed journals, and quite likely, scholarships at her pick of top-flight universities.
The first thing is a kid doing a good job at a science fair. The second thing is stuff adults are doing that can have real-world consequences. It's not accurate to say people are bothered by the first thing; people are bothered by the second thing.
posted by John Cohen at 5:52 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would say that P1 is high variance - there's some stuff that's very high quality and some that is of (I think) pretty marginal significance. You really have to take it paper by paper.

Sure, people I really respect put papers there because it's easy and fast and they know people will evaluate the paper based on it being by them. But it's not that case that being in P1 means This Result Deserves Your Attention like with top flight journals. I just want to clarify for everyone that this isn't like the paper showed up in Nature.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:55 PM on April 18, 2013


But what you seem to be trying to accomplish is to get a little pat on the head and told that you're all OK because yay organic

Is that what I seem to be trying to accomplish? As I casually mentioned above (yay, smugness points for me!), I'm a farmer's market shopper; I know where my food comes from and how it's grown, and therefore I couldn't care less whether it has the organic label on it.

I see a lot of backlash against organic, and it's an interesting thing. The root of what's being, er, lashed back against seems to be, not the organic label itself, but the perceived smugness of yuppies who buy organic to feel smug. That smugness so infuriates people.

It doesn't infuriate me. That's all I'm saying. I'd prefer that yuppies felt smug about something more meaningful, sure. But in the absence of something more meaningful, I am perfectly happy with yuppies feeling smug after having bought something that's not quite as bad as something else. People having positive emotions about something on a large scale is what drives markets in, in this case, a slightly better direction.
posted by gurple at 9:38 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, PLoS One is a weird journal, it's not top tier, and it has published some seriously dodgy stuff in the past (plus a lot of really great stuff too). They are attractive because articles don't need to be novel, so they'll publish negative results or things that have been scooped, and they have a high impact factor for what they are. They are supposed to be all about the scientific rigour so should have been a good choice for this paper (since the reviewing and editing process would help improve the paper), but it sounds like it was published despite numerous technical problems meaning even the rigour part of PLoS One's mission failed in this case.

I looked at publishing one of my PhD papers there and each of my three supervisors had a different idea about what the journal was actually for and how it worked, all of which were a bit right and a bit wrong. In the end I was accepted by a more conventional journal with a lower impact factor which I went for because I couldn't risk the uncertainty of how a PLoS One paper would be seen by prospective postdoc employers at that point in my career. I absolutely think there is a place for this journal and support it's mission (when they actually carry it out). But what they are trying to do needs to be considered when both reading their papers and when choosing the publish there.
posted by shelleycat at 2:16 AM on April 19, 2013


Oh and when I say 'what they are trying to do' I guess I should say what that is. They say they will publish anything that is technically good enough regardless of importance to the field, which is why things don't need to be novel. Being an online only journal means they aren't limited by page numbers or printing costs so they can accept as many articles as they like. It doesn't mean they will just publish anything but the fast turnover review process does sometimes allow things to slip through. I'm not sure why this article wasn't reviewed more rigorously.
posted by shelleycat at 2:23 AM on April 19, 2013


I'm a farmer's market shopper; I know where my food comes from and how it's grown, and therefore I couldn't care less whether it has the organic label on it.

I suspect you haven't the slightest idea how the food is grown (do you inspect the farms, or just take the vendor's word for it?) and I suspect lack the qualifications to make comparative determinations regarding agricultural practice. If you have a qualification such as a degree in agricultural science and currently work in a relevant field (to agriculture - working in "science" is not enough), please correct me on this point.

But in the absence of something more meaningful, I am perfectly happy with yuppies feeling smug after having bought something that's not quite as bad as something else.

I would not be surprised to find out that yuppies and SWPLs cannot find something more meaningful to be smug about that what sort of apples they eat. The point that several other and I have made is that the smugness is largely uninformed or misinformed as far as the "not quite as bad as something else" goes. If one is going to be smug about "organic is better" then one needs to be able to answer "better in what way?" Would you rather your produce have traces of organic copper sulfate or synthetic mancozeb?
posted by Tanizaki at 7:04 AM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Other meta-analyses / reviews on the organic versus conventional nutrition question: no real differences in nutritional composition, no real differences in health effects (in humans), actual difference in dairy (other research I've seen suggests this isn't due to organic standard mandated practices so much as practices more common in organic production than conventional), no differerences in potatoes, nutrients mixed and of course last year's analysis from Stanford.

In other words, what we know is mixed. Moreover, there is little understanding of which organic practices cause differences and there's great variability by farm (conventional or not). There's also a question of land-use per nutrient. Biofortified posted an analysis of a recent tomato comparison study (a fairly good one) that notes that nutrient yield per acre is still probably better in conventional because of the higher yield.
posted by R343L at 7:06 AM on April 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Missed one: secondary metabolites and some vitamins higher in organic.
posted by R343L at 7:21 AM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suspect you haven't the slightest idea how the food is grown...

Brilliant guesswork, Problem Sleuth! I do trust what my vendors say about how they grow their food, and I trust them to fill in the gaps that I'm not qualified to understand. I am not, in fact, an agricultural scientist nor a farmer. A point I'll return in just a sec....

If one is going to be smug about "organic is better" then one needs to be able to answer "better in what way?"

Importantly: no, one doesn't. It's extremely important that that not be necessary at the level of the consumer, because that kind of informed population is never going to magic itself into existence.

What we need is rational policy that gives consumers -- consumers, everyday people, the people who buy food, not just agricultural scientists and farmers -- simplified choices in the supermarket, so that yuppies can feel smug about buying something that really does make a difference, with a particular set of goals in mind (reducing fossil fuel-based energy inputs; reducing transportation fuel usage; maximizing health in some particular way).

The yuppies don't need to change. Their instinctive smugness-seeking behavior is already perfect just the way it is. What needs to change is the regulatory framework, so that the choice that gives them that warm, smug feeling actually does as much good as possible.
posted by gurple at 9:12 AM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I do trust what my vendors say about how they grow their food

Then you don't know where or how your food is grown, contrary to your previous claim. You only know what someone selling you something has told you. This is called "believing advertising without question".

Importantly: no, one doesn't. It's extremely important that that not be necessary at the level of the consumer, because that kind of informed population is never going to magic itself into existence.

This is exactly false, and does not apply merely to consumer transactions. If you are going to hold an opinion, you have a duty to make it an informed one. You need to *know* what you are saying is true. Not "I think so", "someone told me", or "I heard somewhere once", but *know*. While no one can know everything, one has a duty to be informed as possible. If I offer to sell you a car that gets 200 mpg, you should have red flags going off. The same should apply to claims about any consumer product. I should not be surprising anyone when I say that organic farmers use pesticides, but many are shocked to the point that they deny it is true.

You are the one who framed one's choice of produce in terms of what is "morally superior". Even if I grant you that the kind of apples you buy somehow implicates morality, you must have an idea of the facts that inform the determination of what food purchases are "morally superior" to other food purchases. Please defend your position. Do you really wish to say, "I don't need to tell you how my food purchases are morally superior to other persons' food purchases. Just trust me on this one" I buy conventional apples, you buy organic apples. Please tell me how morally superiority enter the picture in the slightest. (you can use arugula or quince if apples don't imply morality).

You have argued that the SWPLs don't need to be correct. Rather, that the regulatory framework needs to conform to their beliefs without regard to whether or not the beliefs are based in reality or even demonstrably false. This would be comical if it didn't cost so much money. I didn't mail a rather large check on Monday so government can indulge anyone's "warm, smug feeling".
posted by Tanizaki at 9:47 AM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


"The yuppies don't need to change. Their instinctive smugness-seeking behavior is already perfect just the way it is. What needs to change is the regulatory framework, so that the choice that gives them that warm, smug feeling actually does as much good as possible."

Uh, not changing the yuppies and their smugness (much as I think that's a pretty dumb way to frame it and more on you than anything that I said, but we'll roll with it) means that there's no incentive for the regulatory structures to change.

It's all a weird argument from stupidity, and it's a little odd to see someone supporting BE MOAR DUMB as morally superior.
posted by klangklangston at 1:58 PM on April 19, 2013


By eating the food that poor people eat, drinking the same tap water and using public services I am part of consumer base that helps protect and raise the standards of those things for everyone. Those who buy organic foods are using their relative wealth to opt out of a commons and abandon those less well off to their own fate.

Can you explain this a little more? I don't see how "eating the food that poor people eat" inherently serves to make the food any better, unless you combine it with advocacy for better food policy using the message "I am a consumer of xyz products and I demand better xyz." If you're just eating the food...so what?
posted by naoko at 10:30 AM on April 20, 2013


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