Feedback and fallout continue to follow the recently released Stanford study claiming that organic food is no more nutritious than conventional food. And we pick the winner of a copy of Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat.
I love a good verbal dust-up, a spirited exchange of ideas. I’m not so sure a couple of Stanford University scientists would agree right now. They unleashed quite a torrent with their recent statement that organic foods were no more nutritious than non-organic foods. More specifically, Dr. Dena Bravata, an MD and the senior author of the study published in the September 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, said, “There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.” And that’s where the fun begins.
Any number of those responding took the study to task for its narrow view—and for using nutrition and healthy interchangeably, as evidenced by the statement above from Stanford’s own website. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times the day after the study was published called the study’s takeaway debatable and said that the most valuable thing about the study might be that it “points up how little is yet known about the benefits of organics and the harms done by widespread pesticide use.”
A piece from Prevention magazine’s blog, Organic Food vs. Conventional: What the Stanford Study Missed, ran a list of things that can’t be used in production of organic foods, as laid out by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), part of the 1990 Farm Bill. That list includes—among other things—antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, artificial dyes (made from coal tar and petrochemicals) and sewage sludge. Presumably, those things can be used in producing conventional foods.
My original post here raising some of the same issues was picked up by the Christian Science Monitor. There, it caught the eye of Randol White of California-based Eat Drink Explore, a multimedia website focusing on food, drink and travel. White hosts the Eat Drink Explore radio show, and he invited me to be a guest on the show to discuss backlash to the study.
Some responses to the Stanford study not only question its narrow view, but dispute its nutritional findings—perhaps none more convincingly so than Dr. Charles Benbrook of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University. In the course of his work, Dr. Benbrook has read more than 200 of the 298 references cited by Stanford and has come away with a completely different take. First, he finds the study’s design to be flawed, causing it to ignore key benefits of organic foods and gloss over the harmful effects of artificial pesticides and fertilizers.
More than that, though, they ignored evidence in the very materials they cited. As Dr. Benbrook states in his “initial reflections” on the study, in carefully designed studies comparing organic and conventional apples, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, milk, carrots, grains and other raw foods, organic farming leads to increases of 10 to 30% of several nutrients and 50 to 80% in some. He states that “the Stanford team does not define empirically what it means by a food being ‘significantly more nutritious,’” but those numbers sound pretty significant to me. You can download Dr. Benbrook’s complete report here.
Of course, the study is not without its supporters. Roger Cohen, in The New York Times, used it as a launchpad for a tone-deaf rant on elitist indulgences, comparing buying organic food to paying to send your kids to private school. Of course, even Cohen gets one thing right: Feeding 9 billion people worldwide is a huge challenge. But he wrongly assumes that the only way we can do it is to be “against nature” in his words, using pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified foods…
I think that to feed everyone without harming our own health, the health of those who grow our food and the health of the planet, industrial farming needs to take a closer look at organic food production and see what practices can be adopted, adapted and built upon to produce healthier foods on a large scale. And as climate change throws its own wrench into the mix, we all need to look for some new ideas too. Perhaps one good thing that will come from the Stanford study will be getting the conversation started again.
We have a winner!
Two weeks ago, we launched the first ever giveaway at Blue Kitchen. Readers were invited to leave comments on the giveaway post for a chance to win a copy of Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, a charming children’s book written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Amy Bates. Many wonderful comments were left; one was chosen randomly. I’m pleased to announce the winner, Katrina, who said, “I’m not sure who will get this book – me or my 6 year old granddaughter, who likes to tuck up with my old copies of Gourmet. And I never get tired of reading all things Julia, dear lady.” Katrina, we hope you will at least share Minette’s Feast with your granddaughter.