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July 30, 2009 7:14 AM   Subscribe

A recent study, commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency, has found that there is no evidence that organically produced foods are nutritionally superior to conventionally produced foodstuffs. On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods. Who cares?
posted by Christ, what an asshole (123 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
NEW STUDY DEBUNKS STRAWMAN
posted by DU at 7:17 AM on July 30, 2009 [31 favorites]


Was anyone implying superiority of the actual product make-up? I think the (at least implied) superiority is in the stuff that is NOT there, namely pesticide residues and environmentally detrimental production processes, no?
posted by Pollomacho at 7:18 AM on July 30, 2009 [34 favorites]


The people I know who claim a nutritional difference are actually comparing locally grown picked when ripe produce to industrially grown shipped produce. Organic vs. conventional isn't part of that argument at all.

It only stands to reason that a quickly grown tomato, picked while still green and eaten days or weeks later, will have fewer nutrients than one that is allowed to grow at a more natural pace, matured on the vine, and eaten soon after. But the study doesn't address that.
posted by ewagoner at 7:26 AM on July 30, 2009 [6 favorites]


Good morning everyone how are you!

For once I agree with the DU snarkbot--I thought the point of paying extra for organic food was to alleviate environmental impact of the factory farming business. I am a huge fan of genetically-manipulated deepfried chicken balls but even I know there's a cultural and ecological impact to modern methods of food production, and really only unscientific nutters believe that pesticides make you fat or whatever.

It's good to clear up misconceptions, but I'm afraid this article might cause more confusion as Common Sense gurus honk "Take THAT hippies!" for no reason.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:26 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


I was going to say something, but Pollomacho said it already, so I'm just going to ask: why is UKFSA spending money to answer a nonsense question in the first place? Are they similar to the US model of government agency in that while ostensibly being a regulator they are in fact largely beholden to (and often align interests with) the industry they purport to reign in?
posted by majick at 7:26 AM on July 30, 2009


Yup - "The review focussed on nutritional content and did not include a review of the content of contaminants or chemical residues in foods from different agricultural production regimens."

The reason you buy organic centered around environmental concerns, hopeful lack of chemical contaminants, and quality of product including taste.

I've generally come to consider locally grown more important than organic.
posted by Muddler at 7:26 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


There is more than likely still a health benefit to buying produce not covered in chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as meat not pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones.

Also, the added benefit to the environment (arguable in some cases when you consider the extra acreage Organic can require due to spoilage vs. chemically pest-controlled fields) of not having our streams and rivers polluted by same from runoff of these chemicals.

What may be equally important though, is to buy local as much as possible. for me, a conventional chicken from Texas may impact the environment less than a free-range organic grain-fed chicken from New Zealand.

Another aspect to buying local/organic is circumventing the industrial agriculture's mode of picking green, storing long-term, ripening with gasses, etc. vs. buying vine-ripened fresh produce picked last Sunday. Even if the benefit there is just flavor, although there is likely an environmental advantage to not storing the tomatoes in a 33º warehouse for 9 months.

On preview: I'm posting this anyway, because I typed it, dammit.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:28 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Pointless study purely intended to muddle the issue and confuse consumers brought to you by Monsanto
posted by Wroksie at 7:31 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yes I know it's not REALLY brought to us by Monsanto. but I bet their executives found it to be some good readin'.
posted by Wroksie at 7:35 AM on July 30, 2009


These claims were made over and over in the media and you all damn well know it.

Quit being such team players and start actually thinking for a bloody change.
posted by srboisvert at 7:36 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Not to mention that conventionally producing conventionally produced foodstuffs has been shown to be far more successful in eliminating those dangerous pests the bees.
posted by Auden at 7:37 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Soil Association also has a response, which the blog "Ministry of Truth" criticizes. (Not an actual ministry).
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:44 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Um, so nutritionally superior as measured by current socalled "Nutritional Science"?

The problem is that fertilizers and 'conventional methods are develoved based on current nutritional 'sceince' the problem i Have is that the nutrionalists seem to keep moving the goal posts on what exactly consistutes a good diet - and hence would inherently confuse the issue of nutritial superiority.

Organic food is intended to be grown more 'naturally' and hence be reasonably good for you indepnendent of the current wave of nutritial trends.

...its also better for the environment, sustainable and does not rely on petroleum products for plant food.
posted by mary8nne at 7:46 AM on July 30, 2009


Study shows that tap water not actually wetter than bottled water.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:50 AM on July 30, 2009 [8 favorites]


Wow, I am suprised to hear all of you have a clear understanding of the reasons to buy organic. I'm pretty sure (and, obviously, this is mostly conjecture) that a lot of the folks I know who buy organic believe it is better on a quality level (pesticides aside), and I have no doubt that some of them think that means the nutrients are somehow better.

Just saying.. I would not be surprised to learn that there are a lot of people who did not know this.
posted by mbatch at 7:54 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


These claims were made over and over in the media and you all damn well know it.

I don't know it, since I never really listen to what "the media" have to say about anything of import. But it wouldn't at all surprise me to learn that skewed claims were being made from biased sources.
posted by DU at 7:54 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I always thought that people bought organic produce because it lacked chemicals, genetic modifications, helped local farmers, etc. Of course a tomato from the store is going to have near or around the same nutritional values as an organic one. It is the same vegetable. Me/rolls eyes
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:56 AM on July 30, 2009


Organic food is intended to be grown more 'naturally' and hence be reasonably good for you indepnendent of the current wave of nutritial trends.

...its also better for the environment, sustainable and does not rely on petroleum products for plant food.


Those points are all arguably valid. However, if we all switched to organic, non-GM farming methods about a billion people would starve to death. You live in a first-world nation and have the luxury of selecting only the best produce to feed your family. I mean, I buy almost all of my produce from my local organic CSA because it just plain tastes better. But don't get all holier-than-thou about organic farming unless you're willing to accept responsibility for letting most of the third world die of malnutrition.
posted by signalnine at 8:03 AM on July 30, 2009 [10 favorites]


That's an interesting claim, and one I've wondered about myself, signalnine. Would you provide some support for the argument that organic farming practices are non-sustainable on a global level?
posted by Mister_A at 8:13 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


But don't get all holier-than-thou about organic farming unless you're willing to accept responsibility for letting most of the third world die of malnutrition.

Do I get to pick the specific countries?
posted by hermitosis at 8:14 AM on July 30, 2009


I read an article about this on some major news site (CNN or MSNBC) last night and it said organics had both "no nutritional benefits" and "no health benefits" in various places, and didn't get into specifics of what was examined, so I did wonder if they were just looking at nutritional content or if they also examined residues and the like.

I also wonder if they examined polyphenol content. *not a polyphenolist

Of course, an examination of residues and contaminants won't always clearly favor organic products.
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:19 AM on July 30, 2009


However, if we all switched to organic, non-GM farming methods about a billion people would starve to death.

Can you show the methods you used to arrive at this result, or is this just something you made up? And define "we all". All Americans? All first-worlders? And when you say "switched", do you mean switch the production of food for our own consumption or all production regardless of its intended use?
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:24 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


I mean, I buy almost all of my produce from my local organic CSA because it just plain tastes better.


WHOA, let's not get all holier-than-thou! Let's not talk about tastier food unless everyone else in the world can have that tastier food. Also: that would kill people. You wouldn't want to kill people, right?
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:25 AM on July 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


I've generally come to consider locally grown more important than organic.

Here, here. And the more local the better (ie: one's own garden).

But also, here bloody here to signalnine's comment above ...

But don't get all holier-than-thou about organic farming unless you're willing to accept responsibility for letting most of the third world die of malnutrition.

This aspect of the "organic" movement has always bugged me. Reminds me strangely of the few months I lived near Camden Town in London. There was a small recycling depot near our place which just happened to be where two neighborhoods collided, one "Nice" (ie: rich), the other Not So Nice (ie: not rich). The Nice people were all recycling, saving the planet, etc. The Not So Nice couldn't give a shit. There was garbage everywhere. They weren't BAD people. They just hadn't bought in. They had far bigger concerns than saving the planet, like just paying the rent, feeding their kids etc ...
posted by philip-random at 8:28 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have heard it claimed that organic practices can't support enough mouths. However:

1) I have also heard it counter-claimed that this is false. And to be frank, I find the original claim to be kind of hard to believe. I realize that things like the Haber process have made food production skyrocket. But we also have a lot of inefficiencies in our food chain, meat being prime among them.

2) Isn't this the same "too big to fail is too big, period" problem? If we have more mouths than we can sustainably feed, we have too many mouths. Feeding them unsustainably (which we aren't really even doing anyway) only kicks the problem down the road. Not that I'm advocating euthanasia or One Family One Child laws necessarily.
posted by DU at 8:29 AM on July 30, 2009


Also, does this effect scale in a linear fashion down to the microeconomic level, such that if I buy organic, sustainably produced, with my disproportionate first-worlder effect on the global agro-economy, do four people somewhere else die as a result?

And factor in the effect of converting the world's production methods to nonsustainable, water, energy and chemical-intensive methods in an era when those things are ceasing to be reliably available (to the extent they ever were) on a global scale, and the outcome of the decline of those systems and their effect on arable lands and on world hunger in the longer term.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:36 AM on July 30, 2009


Would you provide some support for the argument that organic farming practices are non-sustainable on a global level?

I imagine that the correct answer is long and loaded with annotation. The short answer is more along the lines of, organic farming practices could be sustainable on a global level if we (the globe that is) made it a priority. But it is so far from that right now in way too many places that the reality is, barring a major worldwide shift in our thinking, NO, organic is not sustainable.

And I'm thinking the main reason is that we've all been trained to be such good consumers over the past century, not producers. Organics will only really work in a universal way if we all, on some level, get actively involved in the all so crucial task of food production.

Start with a garden ... or maybe just helping your neighbor with his, occasionally.
posted by philip-random at 8:36 AM on July 30, 2009


George, it's much easier to just spout off big scary round numbers than to really think the problem through, innit?

Also: Every time I eat an organic peach, a kid in Belize gets malaria.
posted by Mister_A at 8:38 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


But don't get all holier-than-thou about organic farming unless you're willing to accept responsibility for letting most of the third world die of malnutrition.

Actually, we should be getting "all holier-than-thou" about organic farming when we are beginning to see the effects of chemical farming in places like India.
They have to buy three times as much fertilizer as they did 30 years ago to grow the same amount of crops. They blitz their crops with pesticides, but insects have become so resistant that they still often destroy large portions of crops.

The state's agriculture "has become unsustainable and nonprofitable," according to a recent report by the Punjab State Council for Science and Technology. Some experts say the decline could happen rapidly, over the next decade or so.

One of the best-known names in India's farming industry puts it in even starker terms. If farmers in Punjab don't dramatically change the way they grow India's food, says G.S. Kalkat, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, they could trigger a modern Dust Bowl. That American disaster in the 1930s laid waste to millions of acres of farmland and forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes.

- NPR
So, really, if you are so worried about third world hunger and starvation, you should be a front runner in pushing organics. As more farmers face soil degradation as well as increased prices for fertilizer and pesticides, fewer and fewer will see the economic value of continuing. So, if we don't end up with dust bowls from over-worked, over chemically treated soils, we will end up with less farms as the cost of production will be prohibitive to many.

But don't mind all that. Keep up with the "better living through chemistry" and preaching that everyone will die if we stop farming practices that aren't even 100 years old yet. I'm not saying that it's not viable to use any chemicals to help food production. But the current systems in place, and the "solutions" being pushed forward by Dow and Monsanto certainly aren't the answer.
posted by chrisroberts at 8:39 AM on July 30, 2009 [14 favorites]


No, I didn't just make that up or pull that number out of my ass. Please see Wikipedia's entry for the Green Revolution and the references cited there.

What I mean by "we" is "we as humans." I am all for organic farming on a smaller scale because I like eating the tasty products of such farming methods. What I mean is that organic farming methods are not something that's capable of feeding the world because they're inefficient and expensive. Large-scale industrial farming is necessary to sustain human life at current population levels. This is just the way it is.
posted by signalnine at 8:39 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Will petrochemical-intensive agriculture will continue to be the only way to feed the world when the price of oil starts rising because we've started exhausting our easily extracted reserves?
posted by snofoam at 8:41 AM on July 30, 2009


However, if we all switched to organic, non-GM farming methods about a billion people would starve to death.

I have heard statements like that before. However, it does not appear to be true. Likely the idea is simply outdated or, more likely, paid for by your local giant agribusiness.
posted by Nonce at 8:42 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


I nearly didn't survive my childhood in Belize because of recurring malaria infections you bastard!
posted by Fezboy! at 8:46 AM on July 30, 2009


Thanks Nonce, that's a pretty good paper. Looks like with organic farming, you take a hit on production initially, but long-term yields are equal or greater than chemical fertilizer schemes, probably because you're not wrecking the soil.
posted by Mister_A at 8:49 AM on July 30, 2009



But don't mind all that. Keep up with the "better living through chemistry" and preaching that everyone will die if we stop farming practices that aren't even 100 years old yet. I'm not saying that it's not viable to use any chemicals to help food production. But the current systems in place, and the "solutions" being pushed forward by Dow and Monsanto certainly aren't the answer.


Do you have any idea how to solve this problem with organics at current population levels? If you look at the famine that we narrowly avoided prior to the Green Revolution, it's obvious that traditional organic farming methods were insufficient 40 years ago and with the population of India nearly doubling since then, how exactly is going back to traditional methods going to feed those extra five hundred million people? I mean, sure, there is definitely a problem there with overuse of chemical fertilizer and bad or no soil conservation methods but organic farming is NOT the answer. Better genetically modified crops and soil and land management looks like the only way that problem is going to get solved.
posted by signalnine at 8:50 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just for fun I thought I'd see if I could find a link between the company that did the study and Monsanto. These people charge that Monsanto is one of the organization's sustaining members.

But looking for the American Society for Clinical Nutrition takes you directly to the American Society for Nutrition, www.nutrition.org. They publish the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, "the highest ranked peer-reviewed journal in nutrition and dietetics," and the Journal of Nutrition, "which provides the latest research on a broad spectrum of topics of vital interest to researchers, students, policymakers and all individuals with interests in nutrition."

Sounds impressive, until you start poking at it, as I did. If you keep going deeper down that particular rabbit hole, you find that the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, A.K.A. the American Society for Nutrition, is supported by what they call "sustaining members," which, they say, "[provide] corporate financial support for the society's activities in education/training, scientific programs and professional outreach." The site says that sustaining members have "the ability to sponsor educational opportunities, grants and other items." Oddly, they don't specify what those "other items" might be, but I'd be willing to bet that research is one of them.

Would you like to know who some of the sustaining members are? Get ready: The National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Cadbury Schweppes. Campbell Soup Company. ConAgra Foods. Dannon. Eli Lilly. General Mills. Gerber. GlaxoSmithKline. Kellog. Kraft. Mars. McCormick. Monsanto (of course!). The National Dairy Council. Nestle. PepsiCo. POM Wonderful (maker of those nifty pomegranate juices). Procter & Gamble. The Sugar Association. Unilever. Wrigley. Wyeth.


Here's the link to their "sustaining members" page. It is just about the most lazy and deceitful bit of reporting for any news organization to relay this corporate astroturf to the public without investigating the source. Par for the course these days and more evidence why we should never trust any corporate news source at face value.
posted by any major dude at 8:52 AM on July 30, 2009 [13 favorites]


What I mean is that organic farming methods are not something that's capable of feeding the world because they're inefficient and expensive. Large-scale industrial farming is necessary to sustain human life at current population levels. This is just the way it is.

Not necessarily. There's nothing to say we can't figure out how do do large scale organic farming. We went for the chemicals first because it was a huge advance over existing farming practices and produced way better yields. Just like the car, it seemed like a great idea at the time.

Now that we know the unintended consequences, we have to start investing in figuring out how to do this differently.
posted by Zinger at 8:54 AM on July 30, 2009


They weren't BAD people. They just hadn't bought in. They had far bigger concerns than saving the planet, like just paying the rent, feeding their kids etc

Mebbe.

But I lived in a council block for 6 years. Part of the block was gentrified and owner occupied. Part of it not. It was, by and large, a nice place to live, save for the minority imbecile.

People would tip rubbish bags down the chute even when they knew it was big enough to get stuck, because they were too lazy to take it downstairs. The actual bins downstairs were massive, but some people couldn't be bothered to actually throw stuff into the bins, preferring to leave it on the floor. We had an inveterate spitter, who would carefully leave his spit in the corner of the lift everyday. And at least a couple of longtime residents who should have known better but smoked in the lift regularly.

It's not about other worries like rent and food. It's about a sense of ownership, and a sense that if you don't do something right, no-one else will. Contrasted with the idea that "the council" is there to just clean up after everything.

It reminded me of the Alexi Sayle gag (and I paraphrase): "I had a shit the other day and it took three bloody days for the council to come round and flush the toilet."
posted by MuffinMan at 8:57 AM on July 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


The study notes that it has not tested the validity of any health claims made about the absence of pesticides, or the potential environmental benefits of organic production.

But it was needed. There have been a lot of claims made for the nutritional benefits of organic produce and meat, across all media, and part of the FSA's remit is to police any claims made about food and food supplements.

Ben Goldacre (he's a medical doctor that writes the Bad Science blog / columns / book, and is linked from the ministry of truth blog in theophileescargot's post, above) makes an important point in his Bad Science book: in the UK, we're lucky. A roughly balanced diet that's pretty good on fruit and veg, and moderate in junk, bestows on us health advantages that much of the world can only dream of. The only people that need to worry about their micronutrient intake are the poor sods who are utterly marginalised through the melting pot of poverty, ignorance and isolation that plagues some of our most deprived areas. And even then, it's just a case of getting some by eating fruit and veg - ANY fruit and veg. The rest of us? Just get those 5 a day.

I agree with Goldacre that we've living a society that's increasingly obsessed with food, and is being educated by the food industry, and a compliant media, that getting a healthy diet into us is difficult, and requires all sorts of nutritional supplements and overpriced 'superfoods', rather than a shopping basket that contains a reasonable amount of fruit and vegetables.

Local, seasonal food that's low in pesticides and has not required a large energy input can only be a good thing, especially if concerns meat. And yes, farmers' market vegetables can be more tasty - we get some of ours this way. But it's wrong to make unsubstantiated claims. and it's naive not to recognise the organic food movement as another industry, which is also putting a lot into PR and media influence.

When people make these claims about organic food, they're elevating it into the same category as nutritional supplements and so-called superfoods: something that middle class people worry that they ought to buy because they have been brainwashed into thinking that it confers some sort of nutritional advantage for them and their kids, and if they just buy plain ordinary fruit and veg, they'll lose all cognitive function as they wither away. Which is bollocks.

Food waste is also an increasing problem in the UK. Perhaps the best way to get the most nutrients from our fruit and veg would be to eat the damn things when we buy them, instead of throwing much of them away.
posted by dowcrag at 8:57 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Green Revolution wasn't just fertilizer. It also included improved varieties of wheat, better irrigation methods and more intensive farming practices. Those things certainly have consequences, but it's not just spray n' pray.
posted by electroboy at 8:58 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Never mind those "safe" levels of neuro-toxins and other chemical residues on your non-organic fruits and veggies, and the genetically altered corn in there. I'm sure those won't have any cumulative effect on your body...
posted by Windopaene at 9:00 AM on July 30, 2009



I have heard statements like that before. However, it does not appear to be true. Likely the idea is simply outdated or, more likely, paid for by your local giant agribusiness.


There have been a number of other studies which contradict that one. A study from the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found that, area-for-area, organic farms of potatoes, sugar beet and seed grass produce as little as half the output of conventional farming.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Norman Borlaug asserts that organic farming practices can at most feed 4 billion people, after expanding cropland dramatically and destroying ecosystems in the process.
posted by signalnine at 9:00 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: *not a polyphenolist
posted by Windopaene at 9:03 AM on July 30, 2009


Take THAT, hippies!

*dies from pesticide exposure*
posted by emjaybee at 9:09 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


But my organic curly kale can jump higher than a house!
posted by davemee at 9:14 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I can, I buy clothes made from organic cotton.

This is not because I think organic clothes are more nutritous.
posted by memebake at 9:14 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Regular milk from the local market lasts about four days, organic milk from the same market lasts about two weeks. I've never seen pallets of organic milk sitting in the sun on the sidewalk for an hour while the truck is being unloaded, and that probably has something to do with it. But, still, I do get more nutrition from the organic milk that isn't thrown out when it goes rotten.

Similar factors apply to the handling and delivery of other produce.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:17 AM on July 30, 2009


Organic farming is one of those issues that people tend to have strong feelings about first and then go look for the evidence that supports their conclusions afterwards. I regularly buy organic vegetables, myself, because I worry about the run-off effects of commercial fertilizers and pesticides in the rivers and ocean, but I also recognize that even the environmental argument is two-sided. Organic farming tends to be more land intensive (lower yields per acre) and the question of whether it can reliably feed our overpopulated world remains a hotly debated one.

Proponents of organic food regularly make claims about its nutritional superiority, enhanced flavor, and lower toxicity which never, alas, get confirmed by properly designed studies. No, alas, not even the claims to better taste; in blind tests people cannot distinguish between organic and conventional vegetables or meat. I think the proponents of organic farming are the ones to blame for any "confusion" that results from a study like this one; they shouldn't have made false claims in the first place.

As for "locally produced" food--that seems mostly bogus to me; it's one of those arguments that is superficially appealing because we're bad at intuitive mathematics. Life-cycle studies of carbon-footprints for locally produced vs. imported foods suggest that a world-wide devotion to "localvorism" would be disastrous. As James McWilliams put it in the NY Times a while ago:
lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.
"OMG, they flew this apple 5,000 miles to get it to this store!" sounds impressive until you start dividing the carbon costs of that transport up per apple. As soon as you start thinking about all the other energy costs that go into producing that apple and getting it to your dining room table, it seems pretty much beside the point.
posted by yoink at 9:17 AM on July 30, 2009 [6 favorites]


Regular milk from the local market lasts about four days, organic milk from the same market lasts about two weeks

That's probably because it has been ultra-pasteurized.
posted by yoink at 9:18 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


The above-linked Salon article's author, Andrew Leonard, states it better than I can:
My question is: Where's the middle ground? Where is the attempt to merge technological innovation with state-of-the-art ecological conscientiousness? Is it, by definition, an unforgivable sin to imagine a genetically modified rice strain that is drought resistant and can handle higher temperatures, farmed sustainably, with a minimum of petrochemical fertilizer inputs? Is it heresy to concede that Borlaug's contributions contributed immensely to India's being able to feed itself (something that many critics said was impossible) while at the same time acknowledging that we can do better?
posted by signalnine at 9:19 AM on July 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


for me, a conventional chicken from Texas may impact the environment less than a free-range organic grain-fed chicken from New Zealand.

Although this is debatable: the carbon cost of transporting a chicken from NZ to Texas is only about 20% (ballpark) of the total carbon cost - when you factor in the lower environmental impact of the free-range production, the NZ chicken might actually come out on top. (See for example the research reported here, admittedly by a NZ university...)
posted by Infinite Jest at 9:19 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


What I mean is that organic farming methods are not something that's capable of feeding the world because they're inefficient and expensive.

So, either we die quickly of starvation or slowly of poisoning? Because these seem to be our two outcomes when the argument is phrased this way.

I would like to believe that human ingenueity could come up with a better method. But then, people still scoff whenever I get excited by skyscraper farms, dammit. But concepts like this do something to address the reason our crops need so much land/water/pest protection, that is, outdoor exposure. Why is engineering Roundup-dependent wheat a better idea than engineering wheat that grows indoors, closer together, in a controlled environment? Engineering for size seems a lot less problematic than engineering for exotic factors like tolerance to one corporation's pesticides, in terms of weird problems later (um, not a geneticist, obviously).

If we don't have enough land and water to raise healthy food, then we need to find ways to raise on less land and water, not just keep pourin' on the bug killer and weed-fighter because we just couldn't think of anything better to do.

Whatever we do, just shrugging our shoulders when confronted with the presence of pesticides in our food, air, and water causing illness and environmental damage is defeatist and wrong.
posted by emjaybee at 9:20 AM on July 30, 2009


Of course a tomato from the store is going to have near or around the same nutritional values as an organic one. It is the same vegetable.

I'm not convinced, for a variety of reasons that have been mentioned in passing so far in this thread.

Anyone care to weigh in specifically on this matter, hopefully with some references?
posted by Jubal Kessler at 9:24 AM on July 30, 2009


Isn't that the point of the original post?
posted by electroboy at 9:51 AM on July 30, 2009


Yes it is.
posted by Dumsnill at 9:53 AM on July 30, 2009


"Organic" just means I get to throw out food faster because it spoils sooner.

I should really eat better.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:58 AM on July 30, 2009


Don't tell the Dervaes family about organic urban farming producing less. They might give up farming their one tenth acre (producing about 6,000 lbs of food a year) and plant a lawn.
posted by brneyedgrl at 10:03 AM on July 30, 2009


Well, does anyone actually know which nutrients they tested in the FPP'd study?
posted by thirteenkiller at 10:04 AM on July 30, 2009


They might give up farming their one tenth acre (producing about 6,000 lbs of food a year) and plant a lawn.

Well, I think we can all agree that organic farming produces more food than a lawn. Unless, of course, you're a ruminant.
posted by yoink at 10:21 AM on July 30, 2009


The claims have been more about organic food having increased levels of antioxidants such as polyphenols -- rather than about macronutrients.

A cursory Google Scholar search turns up more papers (especially from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, of all places) in support of such claims than against. It's too bad they haven't published the list of studies that were included in this meta-analysis, because their claim for no difference in phenolic compounds seems fishy.

When you use pesticides, you are defending your plants from insects. If you don't, the plants have to defend themselves, which they do using various phenolic compounds. That's the story, anyway.
posted by parudox at 10:28 AM on July 30, 2009


The nutrients/substances tested in the meta-analysis were: nitrogen (N = 17 studies), vitamin C (14), phenolic compounds (13), magnesium (13), calcium (13), phosphorus (12), potassium (12), zinc (11), total soluble solids (11), copper (11), and titratable acidity (10).
posted by parudox at 10:31 AM on July 30, 2009


Yeah, I think thirteenkiller asks a good, important question and parudox makes a good point . If the health benefits of food were as easily reducible to the individual nutrients found within them (which it sounds like that's what the studies included in this analysis focused on), then wouldn't it be possible to be a completely healthy individual by taking only supplements and drinking fortified drinks like Ensure? I'm pretty sure it's not possible, so there's obviously more to the nutritional value of particular foods than what we know (either nutrients we haven't yet discovered or the synergistic ways particular nutrients affect the body).
posted by flamk at 10:54 AM on July 30, 2009


If the health benefits of food were as easily reducible to the individual nutrients found within them (which it sounds like that's what the studies included in this analysis focused on), then wouldn't it be possible to be a completely healthy individual by taking only supplements and drinking fortified drinks like Ensure? I'm pretty sure it's not possible, so there's obviously more to the nutritional value of particular foods than what we know (either nutrients we haven't yet discovered or the synergistic ways particular nutrients affect the body).

Fair enough, but then if organic food was so much better for you (regardless of nutrient content) wouldn't it be easy to show actual health gains in a population who eat mostly organic food?
posted by yoink at 10:56 AM on July 30, 2009


Fair enough, but then if organic food was so much better for you (regardless of nutrient content) wouldn't it be easy to show actual health gains in a population who eat mostly organic food?

But I don't think that's what the papers included in this analysis actually studied.
posted by flamk at 11:00 AM on July 30, 2009


But I don't think that's what the papers included in this analysis actually studied.

Oh, I see the FPP didn't include the second part of the study: here's a link (it's a PDF).

Long story short: a review of all studies examining health benefits from organic food comes up with nothing.

So while it's a perfectly fair hypothesis that there might be something particular about organic food that is healthier for us than non-organic food which can't be captured simply by measuring nutrients, it's a rather significant problem for that argument that eating the organic food doesn't result in actual healthier outcomes.
posted by yoink at 11:37 AM on July 30, 2009


Every time I eat an organic peach, a kid in Belize gets malaria.

Was your peach labeled "Fair Trade"?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:05 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Regular milk from the local market lasts about four days, organic milk from the same market lasts about two weeks

That's probably because it has been ultra-pasteurized.
posted by yoink at 11:18 AM on July 30 [1 favorite +] [!]


Scientific American, June 6, 2008
Why does organic milk last so much longer than regular milk?

Actually, it turns out that it has nothing to do with the milk being organic....

Organic milk lasts longer because producers use a different process to preserve it....

The process that gives the milk a longer shelf life is called ultrahigh temperature (UHT) processing or treatment, in which milk is heated to 280 degrees Fahrenheit (138 degrees Celsius) for two to four seconds, killing any bacteria in it.


Arguments that can be proven or disproven with scientific data should include a healthy balance of tasty organic citations in factory-farm quantities.
And should be certified anecdote-free.
posted by vapidave at 12:17 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would eat organic, but somebody on the Web said doing so would kill my mother, or something.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:19 PM on July 30, 2009


Organic milk certainly isn't always UHT pasteurized (which I find gives it a kind of nasty cooked flavor), it's just that most nonspecialty supermarkets buy it in in that form because their supply chain for organics isn't very robust and they need it to have the shelf life. A store that emphasizes local and organic as a main feature of its remit will almost certainly have organic milk that hasn't been ultrapasteurized, unless there simply isn't any source nearby.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:48 PM on July 30, 2009


A store that emphasizes local and organic as a main feature of its remit will almost certainly have organic milk that hasn't been ultrapasteurized, unless there simply isn't any source nearby.

True. But then it won't last four weeks.
posted by yoink at 12:53 PM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


>Long story short: a review of all studies examining health benefits from organic food comes up with nothing.

So while it's a perfectly fair hypothesis that there might be something particular about organic food that is healthier for us than non-organic food which can't be captured simply by measuring nutrients, it's a rather significant problem for that argument that eating the organic food doesn't result in actual healthier outcomes.


There were all of 11 studies reviewed in the paper you linked. Of those, only two actually focused on the connection between an organic diet (versus one specific food) and outcome. The first measured levels of antioxidants, and did find some differences, and the second found a decrease in eczema associated with consumption of strictly organic dairy.

It's only two studies, but they certainly don't look like very good evidence against a difference between conventional and organic to me.
posted by parudox at 1:30 PM on July 30, 2009


It's only two studies, but they certainly don't look like very good evidence against a difference between conventional and organic to me.

It's not "evidence against"; it's a claim that no one has yet shown "evidence for." The burden of proof, surely, is on those who claim that "product A" has magical restorative powers, is it not?

Still, it would be fair to say (as the authors of the study do) that their main finding is that there is a paucity of well-constructed long-term studies of the issue.
posted by yoink at 1:35 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes, but organic produce tastes better.
posted by borges at 1:40 PM on July 30, 2009


The thing is, there's lots of reasons to eat organic and people tend to conflate "better for you" and "more nutritious". Ingesting less pesticides is almost certainly better for you, but it doesn't mean the food is technically more nutritious. I think there's little disagreement that the benefits of organic are:

1. Less pesticide use, resulting in less ingestion from eating produce as well as general environmental exposure.
2. Less environmental damage from fertilizer runoff.
3. Less use of fossil fuels overall.

More nutritious, better tasting, etc are yet to be proven. I think people tend to get caught up in the promotion of organic and make a lot of near unprovable claims in their enthusiasm.
posted by electroboy at 1:47 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


yoink: Thanks for the PDF link to the second part of the study. I've got some more reading to do, but my take is: the conclusion at the end of the executive summary is more "we've got nothing, because we think most of the reviewed studies suck" than "because we've got nothing, it is therefore dubious that organic foodstuffs have more nutrients." Just my take. There may not be a well-vetted evidence base because the core question isn't a popular one among funders of studies, whomever or whatever they may be.

So my own personal jury is still out.

When I search online for papers showing the nutritional benefits of eating organic vs. commercial, most of the results inevitably lean on the dreaded studies show... genericism, and fail to have a references section. They are more press releases than informational documents. This could be weak Google-fu on my part, but...

Anyway, one tidbit from random reading does stick in my head: commercial farming practices emphasize higher yields. What we consider "nutrition" eventually has to come from minerals in the soil, no? So how do we know that said minerals are being replaced at the same rate as with organic farming... in other words, does a commercially farmed tomato plant really have the same amount of mineral sources available to it, long-term, than an organically raised plant?

On preview, what electroboy said, as well.
posted by Jubal Kessler at 1:49 PM on July 30, 2009


Yes, but organic produce tastes better.

There are quite a few studies, such as this one, which have produced very surprising results on that score.

There's a huge psychological component to all matters of taste. If you believe that organic, or free-range, or "locally grown" will be tastier then--all things being roughly equal--you'll find that it is. But in a blind test, you may well find that these differences, no matter how stark they seem to your palate, mysteriously disappear.
posted by yoink at 1:55 PM on July 30, 2009


I'm not surprised that most people can't tell the difference. Most people don't have any taste.
posted by borges at 2:15 PM on July 30, 2009


I'm not surprised that most people can't tell the difference. Most people don't have any taste.

Ah, the "golden tastebuds" argument. Of course, even if it were true (which I doubt), it would still mean that for "most people" there's no taste advantage in buying organic.
posted by yoink at 2:25 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm not surprised that most people prefer the taste and texture of what they are used to eating.
posted by parudox at 2:29 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Huh. I thought the main reason to eat organic produce was to eat overpriced, wilted, bug-eaten veggies. And if the third world doesn't have enough room to eat organic food, well, let them eat blue-green algae!
posted by happyroach at 2:30 PM on July 30, 2009


Resulting billboard seen in London UK today: Scientists say organic "not worth the money".

The message drifting a bit far from the research...
posted by yaxu at 2:32 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't conceive of organic food as being "more nutritious" so much as "less poisonous."
posted by five fresh fish at 4:34 PM on July 30, 2009


I don't conceive of organic food as being "more nutritious" so much as "less poisonous."

If the people who don't eat organic food are being poisoned, it should be pretty easy to come up with a study to demonstrate that. Being poisoned should have pretty dramatic consequences for your health.
posted by yoink at 4:40 PM on July 30, 2009


The consumer shouldn't have to guess which food in the grocery store is contaminated. If the amount of a given pesticide found in a vegetable is known to cause illness in the people who consume it, the contaminated food should be removed from the market. If you don't trust current health and safety regulations enough to buy normal food, then why would you expect them to protect you from contaminated food that's labeled organic?
posted by Human Flesh at 5:20 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Being poisoned should have pretty dramatic consequences for your health.

It's a difficult thing to test, but model animal studies show birth defects and other epigenetic effects, organ failure, cancers, and cognitive and neurological impairment from organophosphate exposures.

As for human guinea pigs, we also have evidence of similar consequences from Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War, as well as acknowledgement from the US government that the Gulf War Syndrome is real, and that causal candidates include organophosphates used on the field in pest control and nerve gas prophylactics.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to ask questions about whether our children are put at risk from eating pesticide-laden food, in the same way that we learned to regulate the use of lead in house paint and gasoline, which irreversibly damages the brain to the tune of 15-20 IQ points.

We probably won't ever really know the full causal consequences in human beings, because right now we're basically exposing children to a whole cocktail of various industrially-derived organic chemicals — also called the "body burden" — which creates enough epidemiological variability that industry lawyers can and do use this to successfully deter legislation and civil lawsuits.

We used to assume something is safe until enough people get sick that the problem can't be ignored. However, we now assume something is safe even when people get sick, by hiring lawyers to invoke sufficient uncertainty and doubt on behalf of moneyed interests.

If I was cynical and wanted to play this over the long-term, like several generations, if we poison our children enough to make them collectively stupid, or at least, dumber as a voting bloc, maybe as they grow up they won't care as much about their well-being enough to protect themselves and their children, when it comes time to vote for people who will represent their interests. This would be an ideal environment in which to do business, if you're in that line of work.

I'm not sure if organic, local farming is sustainable. I'm not certain the food will automatically taste better — even though local means less travel time, which means fresher food.

But I do agree with the sentiment that putting fewer herbicides and pesticides into our bodies is a Good Thing and that we should encourage each other to eat healthier, by avoiding these adulterants.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:58 PM on July 30, 2009


Old-fashioned agricultural practices are not necessarily environmentally friendly. If we choose low-yeald farming techniques, then we will need to devote more land to agriculture to meet a fixed demand for food. We should expect all farms, regardless of whether or not they are called "organic," to have environmental consequences.
posted by Human Flesh at 6:09 PM on July 30, 2009


"lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit."

Well part of eating locally is choosing climate and condition appropriate crops and animals. So the British should be raising, I don't know, goats. And people in Iceland shouldn't be eating bananas. Apples and apricots here instead of oranges and mangos.
posted by Mitheral at 6:10 PM on July 30, 2009


It seems reasonable, therefore, to ask questions about whether our children are put at risk from eating pesticide-laden food, in the same way that we learned to regulate the use of lead in house paint and gasoline, which irreversibly damages the brain to the tune of 15-20 IQ points.

Very reasonable to ask, of course. But the deficits produced by exposure to leaded gasoline were easy to demonstrate once we went looking for them. If the pesticides are as harmful as you fear, the effects ought to be fairly easily demonstrable. Organic farms are big business these days, you'd think it would be easy enough for them to fund a few large scale longitudinal studies.
posted by yoink at 6:20 PM on July 30, 2009


"If the pesticides are as harmful as you fear, the effects ought to be fairly easily demonstrable."

The list of once ok pesticides that have been taken off the market for being unsafe is pretty long. DDT for example.
posted by Mitheral at 6:50 PM on July 30, 2009


But the deficits produced by exposure to leaded gasoline were easy to demonstrate once we went looking for them.

Actually, the damage caused by lead exposure was already known about, but the leaded gasoline industries hid this knowledge and fought hard to prevent any legislation that would regulate its use. (There have since been several other chemicals of note, such as PVC, PFOA and MTBE, which garnered the same kind of response.) Such regulation only applies to the United States — said chemical companies usually just turn around and make and sell their stuff overseas.

If the pesticides are as harmful as you fear, the effects ought to be fairly easily demonstrable.

From model animal studies and three wars involving the United States, we already know the effects of overexposure to pesticides and analogues. The question is whether low-level exposure through ingestion or inhalation through fruit and vegetables is safe.

In any case:

Do any kind of epidemiological study with the goal of investigating the manufacture, use of and downstream environmental and health effects of a problematic chemical, and lobbyist groups will automatically spring up to label you the equivalent of a dirty communist and then feed campaign contributions to the right subcommittee handling your issue of interest, to make everything go away.

Assuming you can jump that hurdle, try to design and perform a study where you can isolate the effects of one compound, independent of the hundreds that persist in our bloodstreams. I'll bet you'll find that it's not such a trivial matter, and that those same lobbyist groups will buy scientists to write "independent" studies discrediting your work and you, in the meantime.

I'm not sure I agree that the matter is as trivial as you make it.

Organic farms are big business these days, you'd think it would be easy enough for them to fund a few large scale longitudinal studies.

Since I honestly don't enough about what "organic" certification means for agribusinesses of that scale, such that they may still use pesticides and herbicides (albeit in lower quantities), I don't know whether or not they would want to perform such studies. Maybe they do.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:19 PM on July 30, 2009


If the people who don't eat organic food are being poisoned, it should be pretty easy to come up with a study to demonstrate that. Being poisoned should have pretty dramatic consequences for your health.

Perhaps the outcome of the poisonous diet of the stereotypical Homo Americana is obesity. Or autism. Or some other 21st Century Disease. Maybe it takes a generation of eating anti-pregnancy hormone-laden.fish, and then we're going to see a whole generation of bisexually-interested/sexually-flexible men and women. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Maybe I'm nuts, but I think that when I can, I am going to stick with more natural foods. I hope what we do to our food is compatible with healthy pregnancy outcomes; I know that a natural sort of diet is okay. There are studies that have definitively proven what is better (more folic acid); there are studies that have definitively proven to be worse (more alcohol). And in the in-between, I choose conservatively: I choose what is less processed and more natural.

You go right ahead and do what you want. It's not like my desire for natural foods is denying you opportunities to purchase inexpensive or highly-processed or GM or hormone-laced or whatever-the-hell-you–want-food.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:50 PM on July 30, 2009


It's not like my desire for natural foods is denying you opportunities to purchase inexpensive or highly-processed or GM or hormone-laced or whatever-the-hell-you–want-food.

I don't think that I said or implied that it was. As I say, I buy organic myself. I just think that making arguments for organic food that aren't based on sound science backfires when the science is done and proves those arguments wrong. As witness the occasion for this thread.
posted by yoink at 9:42 PM on July 30, 2009


Assuming you can jump that hurdle, try to design and perform a study where you can isolate the effects of one compound, independent of the hundreds that persist in our bloodstreams.

Why not pick the low-hanging fruit first? Just do a study of children who eat organic fruit and vegetables and compare them to children who eat non-organic fruit and vegetables (obviously making sure that all other things are equal between the groups). Your links before show that the non-organic fruit and veg have markedly higher pesticide residues than organic fruit and veg, right?

So...start by showing that there is some marked difference in health outcomes between those two groups. Once that's done, then you can start refining (is it this compound or that compound?)--but if one or more of these pesticides is really something to be deeply concerned about in terms of human health impacts (I've already said that I'm anxious about them in terms of environmental impacts) then the differences should be readily identifiable.
posted by yoink at 10:01 PM on July 30, 2009


Do any kind of epidemiological study with the goal of investigating the manufacture, use of and downstream environmental and health effects of a problematic chemical, and lobbyist groups will automatically spring up to label you the equivalent of a dirty communist

Sorry--meant to add this to the last post. I'm not much persuaded by this argument. I mean, sure, of course they will. So? That's the nature of all political regulatory fights. Big business doesn't win them all (especially not when the health of telegenic white children is a big part of what's at stake), and in this case--as I said before--there's a multi-billion dollar business who would stand to gain enormously from increased consumption of organic foods.
posted by yoink at 10:04 PM on July 30, 2009


I think I just watched this thread on Showtime.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 11:25 PM on July 30, 2009


All this arguing over organic vs. petroleum based agriculture ignores the wide differences in different styles of organic agriculture. Organic agriculture ranges from just replacing some petroleum based amendments and pesticides with new ones, to very intensive farming and radically different styles like biodynamic and permaculture.

To take it a step further I would differentiate between "organic" and sustainable. Organic is mostly focused on the production side and the not the environmental impact. I see the environmental as a delayed cost that should be taken into account when comparing costs of food. ie. Chemical fertilizer run-off leading to a large-scale fish die-off would seem to lead to a net loss for food production.

While sustainable farming requires a completely different philosophy. The cutting edge farms are competitive with industrial agriculture with far less input from outside the system and far less negative impact on the environment.


posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:49 AM on July 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


Civil Eats blog points out some flaws in the FSA study:
- they left out more rigorous reports commissioned by the EU
- the earliest report considered is from 1958, before the role of some nutrients was known, and features varieties of vegetables that aren't available anymore as our farms become monocultures
- since their cutoff date of February 2008, 15 more studies have been released (my own memory is of several of those being longitudinal studies, but I can't seem to find the links now)
- differences in phosphorus and nitrogen were left out of the report.

Additionally, the FSA includes former employees of Sainsbury's, Sara Lee and agribusiness Arla Foods.

As mentioned upthread, only 11 studies were considered. Cutting out another 15 seems to limit them unnecessarily. It just doesn't seem like they were looking very hard. Were they afraid of what they might find?
posted by harriet vane at 3:09 AM on July 31, 2009


It seems reasonable, therefore, to ask questions about whether our children are put at risk from eating pesticide-laden food, in the same way that we learned to regulate the use of lead in house paint and gasoline, which irreversibly damages the brain to the tune of 15-20 IQ points.

While in general terms this is a reasonable concern (i.e. do organophosphates in our food lead to possibly very subtle developmental problems), the proposition that we are up to 20 IQ points stupider for having parents who ate non-organic foods is absurd in terms of absolute magnitude. You realize that that's over a full standard deviation on scales intended to measure intelligence right? You really believe that on average the trace pesticides on non-organic food a mother eats during her pregnancy might be yielding a baby with an IQ of 80 when they might otherwise have an average IQ of 100? That to me is simply ludicrous.
posted by drpynchon at 4:02 AM on July 31, 2009


Sorry.. Meant to italicize your quoted text there..
posted by drpynchon at 4:03 AM on July 31, 2009


Here's a study done at University of Washington that shows switching to an organic diet can quickly reduce the amount of pesticides in children. Less dense news story based on an interview with the lead author here.

But that study only tells you so much. The researchers measured urine and saliva, which would seem to be a measure of the pesticides that are eliminated, rather than those stored in fat cells. And it also doesn't tell you anything about outcomes. What it does tell you is that switching to an organic diet has an immediate effect (in children) with regards to their pesticide exposure (assuming your organic produce is pesticide free). So if you believe that the low dose of pesticides you're exposed to is significant, then it would indicate organic is worthwhile. But again, all that is tied up in notions of risk assessment, the human tendency to divide things into "clean" and "unclean" and a whole host of other things that people use to make decisions about what they eat.
posted by electroboy at 7:47 AM on July 31, 2009


There's a huge psychological component to all matters of taste. If you believe that organic, or free-range, or "locally grown" will be tastier then--all things being roughly equal--you'll find that it is. But in a blind test, you may well find that these differences, no matter how stark they seem to your palate, mysteriously disappear.

With dairy and meat it's very easy to tell the difference, especially eggs and chicken.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:05 AM on July 31, 2009


To take it a step further I would differentiate between "organic" and sustainable. Organic is mostly focused on the production side and the not the environmental impact.

It depends. The USDA organic standard actually does address environmental impact.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:11 AM on July 31, 2009


With dairy and meat it's very easy to tell the difference, especially eggs and chicken.

As yoink linked above, it turns out that people prefer conventional.
posted by electroboy at 8:22 AM on July 31, 2009


And I'm not trying to be flip, but a huge part of what you eat is about taste preferences. American style corn fed beef is popular around the world because it's tender and fatty, as opposed to Argentine style grass fed beef, that doesn't have as much intramuscular fat and tends to be a little gamier. Likewise dry aged beef is supposed to be the pinnacle of taste in steaks, but some people find it too strong flavored and a little musty.
posted by electroboy at 8:42 AM on July 31, 2009


As yoink linked above, it turns out that people prefer conventional.

As far as "people" go, I can only speak for myself. I have been eating free range eggs and chicken for years now, and I really don't like the factory farmed stuff anymore, especially the eggs. We have a guy who sells burritos to us at work and sometimes does some barbecue. He's very conservative, thinks organic is silly, etc. Well, he catered a party here where we bought the meat, including organic, free-range chicken. He made fun of us for spending the extra money on the chicken until he cooked it. After that, he couldn't stop talking about how good it was, and he is slow to compliment anything, much less organic food, and he cooks for a living. He kept calling it "orgasmic chicken" and seemed honestly shocked at how good it was compared to the conventional chickens he bought.

Luckily, there are a lot of backyard farmers where I live and the zoning to support it, so during the summer you can find many signs up advertising "free eggs." I have a friend with some chickens, and get eggs regularly from him, and sometimes some chicken meat.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:55 AM on July 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


And I'm not trying to be flip, but a huge part of what you eat is about taste preferences. American style corn fed beef is popular around the world because it's tender and fatty, as opposed to Argentine style grass fed beef, that doesn't have as much intramuscular fat and tends to be a little gamier.

Grass-fed beef is still prized and does command a premium over corn-fed. It's often the case in the US, however, that grass-fed beef is also organic or non-factory farmed, and it's sold to boutique customers and priced for that market. I occasionally buy some local grass-fed if it's on sale. Definitely not as fatty, but a grass-fed rare steak is better than corn-fed, IMO. But if you're making hamburger, it's a bit too lean.
posted by krinklyfig at 10:11 AM on July 31, 2009


Your taste preferences are noted.
posted by electroboy at 10:48 AM on July 31, 2009


> It's not "evidence against"; it's a claim that no one has yet shown "evidence for." The burden of proof, surely, is on those who claim that "product A" has magical restorative powers, is it not?

Still, it would be fair to say (as the authors of the study do) that their main finding is that there is a paucity of well-constructed long-term studies of the issue.


Once you start going around loudly proclaiming that "organic is no more nutritious", the burden of proof is on you. And that is exactly what they're doing (emphasis mine):
"We wanted to answer the question, 'Is there any evidence that organic food is nutritionally superior to conventionally grown food?'" says the study's lead author, Alan D. Dangour, PhD, a public health nutritionist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. "The answer is no. Organic food is not nutritionally superior to conventional food."
The study in question is a weak review that is based on a highly selective subset of studies, funded by a government organization that has no clear mandate to do so (except industry pressure), and it is being misrepresented in nearly all media outlets. It is not a study so much as it is FUD.
posted by parudox at 2:40 PM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


parudox, you're mixing up two separate studies. The one I was talking about in the post you quote from was the study on health outcomes. The one you link to a discussion of is the one on nutrient content.

You say "highly selective subset of studies" as if that's a bad thing. Surely any well designed review of this kind does it's best to find the highest quality studies? They ended up with 55 that they deemed to be of "satisfactory quality." That's a hell of a lot of studies; more than enough, surely, if they are, in fact, well designed, to show up some consistent difference. If your claim is that they selected with a deliberate bias, you'd be best to back that up with some comparison between studies they rejected (or overlooked) and the studies they selected. If you think the criteria they employed are in some way unfair, that, too, would be a reasonable criticism. But dark mutterings about "industry pressure" (dark unsubstantiated mutterings I should say) and "media misrepresentation" really doesn't make your case look very strong.

As for his slippage from "is there any evidence that organic food is nutritionally superior" to "Organic food is not nutritionally superior"--well, it's a bit of a quibble, isn't it, when you're looking at a news interview? And even if that weren't the case: no--one researcher who made an overstretched claim about the implications of his study would not, in fact, reverse the burden of proof in this case. The burden of proof is clearly on those who claim that there is a nutritional difference. That's Science 101.
posted by yoink at 5:13 PM on July 31, 2009


Mea culpa, I did conflate the two studies.

At one point in the nutrition review, they excluded over two-thirds of the articles they found because they "failed to specify the organic certifying body" or "failed to specify the plant cultivar or livestock breed". I call that arbitrary, and very definitely a bad thing. By the way, no, 55 studies is not a lot -- the most they have for any one nutrient is 17, as I noted above. Oh, and here's the paper's section on "study quality" (emphasis mine):
The quality of research and reporting in this area is extremely variable. Each study included in the review was graded for quality based on 5 criteria addressing key components of study design: a clear definition of the organic production methods, including the name of the organic certification body; specification of the cultivar of crop or breed of livestock; a statement of which nutrient or other nutritionally relevant substance was analyzed; a description of the laboratory analytic methods used; and a statement of the methods used for statistical analyses. Studies were defined as being of satisfactory quality if they met all 5 criteria. We did not grade further the quality of organic certifying bodies or analytic methods used.
So they exclude based on relatively trivial factors without even analyzing the meat of the studies. The remaining papers are of uncertain and varying quality, so interpretation of the results is unclear. Have I mentioned that the review failed to present an analysis of their power to find an effect? Of course, the best part is that all the juicy details are in supplementary online materials that have not yet been made available -- at the same time that the media campaign has gone out in full force.

This is poor-quality, politically-motivated science. Otherwise known as bullshit.
posted by parudox at 6:21 PM on July 31, 2009


Careless use of, overuse of, or misuse of pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and depleted uranium have serious potential of backfirng in a significant, generational, genetically-damaging manner. We have seen what thalidomide and agent orange did to the human species genome.

We have one hell of a lot of unusual diseases and symptoms and very unhealthy people in our society. It is rapidly becoming a generational occurrence: Either our gene pool sucks or we are doing things that affect quality of life.

We trusted The Powers That Be to not poison the shit out of our children by injecting their mothers with an inadequately-tested anti-nausea drug and look what it got us: thalidomide. We trusted TPTB to not poison the shit out of our air and look what it got us: leaded gas. A fucking tragedy.

It behoves us to be cautious in risking our genetic integrity. Scepticism is warranted. We need to be sure that we are not creating mutagenic diets or environments.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:31 PM on July 31, 2009


Woot.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:33 PM on July 31, 2009


So they exclude based on relatively trivial factors without even analyzing the meat of the studies.

I cannot see how you come to the conclusion that these are "trivial factors."

a clear definition of the organic production methods, including the name of the organic certification body;

This one seems a no-brainer. If the study doesn't make it clear what they mean by "organic" AND make it clear that some regulatory body has certified that, indeed, these "organic" methods were used, the study is clearly useless. The term "organic" has been used so loosely and variably that a rule like this is essential. And it's essential precisely if you are pro-organic. Not having this rule could only serve to muddy the waters by allowing studies that were not, in fact, comparing "organic" to "nonorganic" but "nonorganic-but-labeled-organic" to "organic."

specification of the cultivar of crop or breed of livestock;

Again, clearly essential. You need to know that you're comparing apples to apples (or, rather, that you're comparing Granny Smith to Granny Smith). If it turns out that organic Bosc pears have more nutrients than nonorganic Bartlett's we don't know if that says something about organic farming or about Bartletts and Bosc.

a statement of which nutrient or other nutritionally relevant substance was analyzed;

Well, duh. The point of this study is a study of nutrient content. If the studies don't specify what they were searching for then they're clearly useless.

a description of the laboratory analytic methods used;

Again, clearly essential. Would you trust a study that said "organic oranges contained far higher levels of Vitamen C than nonorganic oranges" if it didn't tell you how they'd arrived at that finding?

and a statement of the methods used for statistical analyses.

Again, essential; tests of these kinds are by their nature statistical tests (how many oranges do you need to test in order to get a statistically significant result? How did you go about making sure your samples were genuinely random? etc. etc.). If you don't know if the results were statistically significant (and at what threshold) the test results are worthless. Would you accept a study that told you it had found significant results if you had no idea what it meant by "significant"?

Studies were defined as being of satisfactory quality if they met all 5 criteria. We did not grade further the quality of organic certifying bodies or analytic methods used.

A review of previous studies like this has to draw the line somewhere. It's not setting out to replicate every study. Any study which meets the excellent criteria above has clearly established its bona fides to be taken seriously--even if it is not therefore automatically beyond criticism. The fact that they found 55 studies that met these criteria and that no clear benefit emerged from those studies is surely extremely telling? Even if we were to assume that they should have been more selective (i.e., by "grading further the quality of organic certifying bodies or analytic methods used") it's very hard to see how weeding out a few more lower quality studies would suddenly reveal a clear nutritional advangate for organic foods.
posted by yoink at 11:42 AM on August 1, 2009


> Not having this rule could only serve to muddy the waters by allowing studies that were not, in fact, comparing "organic" to "nonorganic" but "nonorganic-but-labeled-organic" to "organic."

Oh man, it would just be terrible if they had found that food promoted as organic had more nutrients than food not so promoted.
posted by parudox at 9:38 PM on August 1, 2009


Oh man, it would just be terrible if they had found that food promoted as organic had more nutrients than food not so promoted.

Oh, I see I made a small slip of the keyboard. I meant to write (what I would have thought was reasonably obvious from the context) "Not having this rule could only serve to muddy the waters by allowing studies that were not, in fact, comparing "organic" to "nonorganic" but "nonorganic-but-labeled-organic" to "nonorganic."

I take it you are capable of seeing why that would be a problem, right? These would be studies that would tend to show no difference between "organic" and "nonorganic" foods because they would, in fact, be comparing "nonorganic" to "nonorganic." Weeding these studies out can only help the case of the pro-organic side.
posted by yoink at 8:57 AM on August 2, 2009


My response was to the version you meant. You're assuming that the studies that document the certifying bodies are more sensitive. I disagree with that. In all likelihood most of the excluded studies actually did test fully-certified produce, just without documenting the certification (possibly due to journals wanting to exclude unnecessary detail, even). And in any case, it's an empirical question whether this distinction matters. With those 87 studies they excluded on this basis -- that may not differ substantively -- the review may very well have had the statistical power to find an effect.
posted by parudox at 3:44 PM on August 2, 2009


You're assuming that the studies that document the certifying bodies are more sensitive. I disagree with that.

No, I'm saying we don't know. If they don't document the certifying body then we simply cannot know if there was any oversight of whether these vegetables were, in fact, organic. If you cannot know that then the studies are worthless.

Surely you can see that it can only make the case stronger for organics to exclude these studies. I mean, of course many of them probably compared truly "organic" foods with "non organic" foods; but that is far more likely to be true of the included studies as a group than it is of the excluded ones, and there's no reason to assume the included studies would show some bias against organics that the excluded studies would correct (again, if anything, the opposite: the inclusion of official certification is far more likely in the case of studies sponsored by the organic food industry; I can see far more reason for studies sponsored by the likes of Monsanto to play fast and loose with the definition of "organic").

I can't tell if you're just arguing for the hell of it at this point or what. This isn't a complicated point or a debateable one. It is simply self-evidently true that ensuring that the included studies are truly "organic/nonorganic" comparisons allows for the strongest possible case to be made for a real difference between organic and nonorganic foods.

55 well-designed scientific studies comparing organic food that has been certified as genuinely organic by some independent body with the same cultivars grown by conventional farming methods have found no difference in nutrient contents between the organically grown and the conventionally grown cultivars. I think it's time to simply concede that "different nutrient content" is not a viable argument in favor of organic food. (Pesticide exposure is obviously still worth exploring, as is total environmental impact--but the nutrient thing is just a loser, I'm sorry).
posted by yoink at 4:05 PM on August 2, 2009


If they don't document the certifying body then we simply cannot know if there was any oversight of whether these vegetables were, in fact, organic. If you cannot know that then the studies are worthless.

Except if such studies find a difference, in which case you really do have to attribute it to the organic aspect, however undocumented.

(again, if anything, the opposite: the inclusion of official certification is far more likely in the case of studies sponsored by the organic food industry; I can see far more reason for studies sponsored by the likes of Monsanto to play fast and loose with the definition of "organic").

I'd think otherwise, actually. For researchers who are able to find differences, those differences vouch for them having tested distinct groups. However, research that claims there's no difference better be able to show that yes, really, it was testing distinct things -- and here the details come in handy.

I can't tell if you're just arguing for the hell of it at this point or what. This isn't a complicated point or a debateable one. It is simply self-evidently true that ensuring that the included studies are truly "organic/nonorganic" comparisons allows for the strongest possible case to be made for a real difference between organic and nonorganic foods.

At a given number of studies, I'd agree. However, if it's 55 strict studies versus 130 not-quite-as-strict studies, it's not clear a priori which is a better bet for finding a statistical difference. The prudent thing would be to do the larger analysis, and analyze the subset only if it looks different than the whole. I'll also add that due to issues of bias in selection and the difficulty of lumping together heterogeneous data, meta-analyses and reviews like this one are considered to be of less value than a single large, well-designed, controlled, randomized, etc. study.

(Any further discussion is best left to MeFi mail.)
posted by parudox at 8:39 PM on August 2, 2009


Except if such studies find a difference, in which case you really do have to attribute it to the organic aspect, however undocumented.

You're not a scientist or in any field associated with science or even vaguely familiar with the scientific method, I take it. Sorry for wasting both your and my time.
posted by yoink at 9:29 PM on August 2, 2009


And just to explain: no, scientists can't say "if the results come in the way I want, then they count; if they don't come in the way I want, they don't count." If you find differences you need to know the reason for those differences. If you're simply going to assume that the reason for those differences is what you want it to be then there was no point running the experiment in the first place.
posted by yoink at 9:36 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nice straw man. And you can take your condescension and shove it. I'm quite familiar with how science works.

Here's an example you might find easier to digest: Say there's a hypothesis that red-colored words are easier to read than orange-colored words. Various people go and test that with their preferred techniques, and write up the results in all sorts of journals. Some of them find a benefit, and some of them don't. A reasonable thing to do is to review the studies, and consider what their collective results are. That could show a reliable difference, or it could show none. If there's no reliable difference, then it's reasonable to suspect that perhaps red and orange weren't that different in some of the studies. In that case, you take the relatively few studies that specified how their monitors were calibrated for color and brightness, and see if you find a larger benefit there.

But if there's a reliable benefit for red words over orange ones, then there is little doubt about the interpretation even if you don't know what brand of monitor they used.
posted by parudox at 11:39 PM on August 2, 2009


But if there's a reliable benefit for red words over orange ones, then there is little doubt about the interpretation even if you don't know what brand of monitor they used.

And if it turns out that on some of the monitors the "red colored" words were coming out blue? That, of course, wouldn't affect the results at all, would it?

I'm quite familiar with how science works.

I'm afraid we've had to reject that hypothesis.
posted by yoink at 9:56 AM on August 3, 2009


If I'm not mistaken, this was a meta analysis of a bunch of studies that met some special criteria. Not that impressive really.
posted by borges at 8:53 PM on August 3, 2009


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