Last Friday a group of researchers announced their findings ahead of their report on the nutrition of organically produced food to be published in the British Journal of Nutrition. The study is titled “Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses,” and, according to Charles Benbrook of Washington State University and one of the meta-analysis study’s authors, was “funded primarily by the European Commission’s science and technology program.” The study also acknowledged Sheepdrove Trust “for providing financial and technical support. The Sheepdrove Trust supports independent R&D underpinning the development of organic and sustainable farming and food systems.” The authors are quick to point out, “Financial support was provided by the Trust without conditions, and the Trust had no influence on the design and management of the research project and the preparation of publications from the project.”
Since, with the exception of some minerals (e.g. salt), everything we eat is an organic compound, “organic” means something else in this context. It means that “natural” methods only were used to grow the crop or animal.
Some Background on “Organic” agriculture
In the early 20th century (with the introduction of synthetic chemicals and the Haber-Bosch process for making ammonia) the methods used to grow the food and fiber became a concern to some. The organic movement pushed back against the incorporation of these unnatural synthetic elements and procedures into agriculture, as though creating food for our needs was completely natural. Agriculture is the domesticating of the labor of plants and animals to provide food and fiber for us; humankind has used and modified agriculture for its own purposes for 10,000 years.
Only in the past 25 years, have we in the United States codified the difference in the growing methods between organic and conventional. In 1990, George H. W. Bush signed the Organic Foods Production Act creating the National Organic Program (NOP). This act placed the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge of administrating the program and naming the 15 members of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), who were to “assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in organic production” and advise the Secretary of Agriculture on implementing the program. It is the NOSB, in the United States, who set the standards for what can be labelled USDA Certified Organic.
Different countries have different standards yet they generally follow similar production requirements as the U.S. for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping. In all cases the avoidance of synthetic chemicals for any reason is paramount. Organic rules allow seed created through chemical or atomic mutation, but prohibit any anything created by transgenic breeding.
“The key principles and practices of organic food production,” explain Diane Bourn and John Prescott, “aim to encourage and enhance biological cycles within the farming system to maintain and increase long-term fertility of soils, to minimize all forms of pollution, to avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, to maintain genetic diversity of the production system, to consider the wider social and ecological impact of the food production and processing system, and to produce food of high quality in sufficient quantity.” Those are noble and worthwhile goals that all farmers would no doubt ascribe to. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, proclaims organic food production to be sustainable and better for the soil, with yields comparable to conventional farming, and forgoing industrial fertilizers and pesticides means less pollution. Conversely, according to Pollan in 2008, conventional agriculture’s more intensive production means more pollution, “when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”
Organic versus Conventionally Raised Nutritive Value
USDA certification was not meant to connote that organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food, only that it has met the paperwork and production standards. “However,” Professor Bruce Chassy and his co-authors note, “organic definitions are not always accurately portrayed by marketers or correctly perceived by consumers.” Some people even believe organically grown food has Mystical Properties. As an example, numerous websites promoting alternative medicine and conspiracy theories, including NaturalNews.com, quote Joel Salatin, founder of Polyface Farm as saying, “If you think organic food is expensive, have you priced cancer lately?” Why eating organic food didn’t protect Atusa the queen of Persia in 440 BCE (it is thought that her Greek slave may have cut off her diseased breast to remove the cancerous lump)from the first recorded case of cancer is left unanswered. There were earlier cases as the fossil records show, Herodotus is the first to record it.
Despite all the hype, most studies have shown little to no difference in the food produced. According to the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn’t claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.” The Mayo Clinic is not alone. Here is what the UK’s Food Standards Agency said in 2003, ”In our view the current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Nor are we alone in this assessment. For instance, the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) has recently published a comprehensive 128-page review which concludes that there is no difference in terms of food safety and nutrition. Also, the Swedish National Food Administration’s recent research report finds ‘no nutritional benefits of organic food.’”
The findings of the study appear to be similar to other reviews such as a 2009 study titled, Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literatureby Dr. Alan Dangour, et. al. It said (italics in original paper):
“In analysis including all studies (independent of quality), no evidence of a difference in content was detected between organically and conventionally produced crops for the following nutrients and other substances: vitamin C, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, total soluble solids, titratable acidity, copper, iron, nitrates, manganese, ash, specific proteins, sodium, plant non-digestible carbohydrates, ?-carotene and sulphur. Significant differences in content between organically and conventionally produced crops were found in some minerals (nitrogen higher in conventional crops; magnesium and zinc higher in organic crops), phytochemicals (phenolic compounds and flavonoids higher in organic crops) and sugars (higher in organic crops). In analysis restricted to satisfactory quality studies, significant differences in content between organically and conventionally produced crops were found only in nitrogen content (higher in conventional crops), phosphorus (higher in organic crops) and titratable acidity (higher in organic crops).”
While Benbrook’s and his co-authors’ “view is that the weight of evidence supports linkages between higher antioxidant intakes and improved health outcomes, despite inability to quantity such linkages or predict fully which factors drive them.” (Italics mine)
The more mainstream view follows the conclusions of Dangour’s team (italics in original):
“No evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content. The differences detected in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are biologically plausible and most likely relate to differences in crop or animal management, and soil quality. It should be noted that these conclusions relate to the evidence base currently available, which contains limitations in the design and in the comparability of studies. There is no good evidence that increased dietary intake, of the nutrients identified in this review to be present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.”
This new study seems to be a matter of emphasis. Andrew Kniss, an Associate Professor, Weed Biology & Ecology at the University of Wyoming, suggested an alternate headline: “Organic food has less Vitamin E, Protein, and Fiber than conventional food, study finds.”