Stanford University researchers conducted a meta-analysis* of seventeen studies in humans and 230 field studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in unprocessed foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, eggs, chicken, pork, and meat). The study, published in The Annals of Internal Medicine (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22944875), concluded that “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
This conclusion has received vast media coverage – announcing that this meta-analysis demonstrates clearly that organic foods might not have more nutritious value than conventional foods and questioning the “value add” of producing and eating organic. Is organic food little more than a made up marketing scheme, another way for affluent consumers to waste money? This was the kind of questions that came to my mind when reading the articles from influential newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post.
In fact, there are major issues and gaps when reading both the scientific article as well as the media coverage.
One of them is the simplistic way that the media has used to report on this study. They mainly focused on the conclusion that summarized two results as a key statement. However, when reading the article, each of us can appreciate all the results (or non-results) as well as the limitations of this study and can conclude that things in nutrition science are not so simple.
The fact that the journalists have not done a critical analysis of the study and available scientific publications on the subject, or have not highlighted its limitations that are quite substantial or have not offered a fair presentation of what the study’s critics have to say is intriguing and disconcerting because a good scientific investigation can minimize the impact that this “single” study can have on our choice to eat or not organic foods. In fact, more clinical long-term investigations are needed to answer the question: “is organic food more nutritious or safer?” It will bring an important component – tangible outcomes to validate its real value in prevention and promotion. The challenges associated to scientific research of the benefice of eating organic foods will be discussed in another blog.
This is a very hot topic and we would like in this blog to ask some pertinent questions and answer them, when possible. This will help to clarify why it is important to continue to develop organic farming as well as to eat and promote organic foods not only at the local but also at the global levels.
What are the advantages of doing organic farming – locally and globally?
There are many explanations and definitions for organic agriculture but all converge to state that it is a system that relies on ecosystem management rather than external agricultural inputs. This is a system that begins to consider potential environmental and social impacts by eliminating the use of synthetic inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, veterinary drugs, genetically modified seeds and breeds, preservatives, additives and irradiation. These procedures are replaced with site-specific management practices that maintain and increase long-term soil fertility and prevent pest and diseases.
According to the FAO/WHO (Codex Alimentarius Commission, 1999):”Organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally adapted systems. This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological, and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfill any specific function within the system.”
When doing organic farming, a variety of crops and livestock are cultivated in order to optimize competition for nutrients and space between species. This results in less chance of low production or yield failure in all of these simultaneously. This diversity in production can have an important impact on local food security and resilience. In rain-fed systems, organic agriculture has demonstrated to outperform conventional agricultural systems under environmental stress conditions. Under the right circumstances, the market returns from organic agriculture can potentially contribute to local food security by increasing family incomes.
At nowadays, the organic agricultural movements can be seen as tangible efforts to create a more sustainable development. However, these efforts are challenged by globalization, which strongly influences and impacts organic agriculture and food chains. In fact, global agriculture and food systems hold large differences between, on the one hand, industrialized farming and consumption based on global food chains and, on the other, smallholder farmers and resource poor people primarily linked in local food markets in low-income countries. This potential more sustainable development in opposition to the more conventional farming/food system gives rise to a number of questions such as:
Does global trade with organic products support a sustainable development?
Can organic agriculture contribute to global food security?
Does organic certification safeguard natural resources and improve working conditions?
Can fair trade with organic products be realized?
These questions need answers if we really want to impact the current and future food insecurity and demonstrate the viability of a sustainable global agriculture system based on organic farming.
Why are we eating organic food (or local food)? …
Because it is safe, nutritious as well as socially responsible and it allows us to reconnect with the essence of “good and tasty eating behaviors”! This is our vision at Challenged Kids International.
The discussion of these different points comes next.
Isn’t reducing exposure to pesticides and antibiotic use precisely what organic production is supposed to do?
Today, agricultural contaminants such as inorganic fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides as well as hormones and antibiotics used in conventional agriculture are a major concern all over the world. These chemicals have accumulated up the food chain where top predators (e.g. humans) can consume toxic quantities. Organic agriculture restores the environmental balance and organic foods are far safer in terms of pesticide content, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and GMOs.
And the Stanford University study corroborated partially this conclusion by finding that organic food had 30% less pesticide residue (see Wayne Roberts’ Blog for this specific point – http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/citywatch-getting-to-the-right-question-on-the-nutrient-benefits-of-organic-food/). Even though the pesticide levels in conventional foods in this study fall within the safety guidelines set by different environmental protection agencies, it is important to note that the health effects of the pesticides are cumulative, and that what we would consider safe at one time point might not be anymore the same over a period of 20 to 40 years of accumulation.
For example, it is well documented that:
• Herbicide residue on GMO crops may be causing fertility problems,
• Organophosphate exposure can lead to pre-term births, and both attention deficit hyperactivity disorders and lower IQs in children
This is quite scary!
Moreover, the Stanford study also noted that the risk for ingesting antibiotic-resistant bacteria was 33% higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork but did not discuss at all the potential health outcome of this kind of results.
Why this result is so important?
Let me take one recent example to show you the potential link between ingestion of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and clinical morbidity and mortality.
As highlighted recently in the Huffington Post (as well as in other newspapers and magazines), superbugs (drug-resistant E. coli) in chickens could be an underlying cause of antibiotic-resistant bladder infections in 8 million women (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/chicken-bladder-infection-superbug-uti_n_1668255.html).
In fact, chickens are injected with antibiotics from day one to help them grow bigger and faster and protect them from diseases. The problem is that these are the same antibiotics sold in the U.S. for humans to treat bladder infections, among other conditions, which means our bodies eventually become resistant to the drugs because we’re getting so much of it. McGill University researchers who have published this interesting result, had previously reported that the E. coli in the chicken was much more genetically related to those of human urinary tract infections, compared with the E. coli in the beef and pork. An interesting but implacable demonstration!
More importantly, from a public health safety point of view, this kind of results has led the USDA to routinely sterilize commercially harvested meat, a practice not necessary in organically raised animals.
Is organic food more nutritious than conventional food?
…. Yes, may be, perhaps…. It all depends on what you mean by nutritious food and its relation to seasonal food.
This Stanford University study has also showed that organic foods may have higher levels of anti-oxidants – plant phytochemicals thought to be important to human health as well as omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk and chicken, and vaccenic acid (potential anticancer effect) in organic chicken.
These results corroborate our reading of other scientific articles that have already proved some benefits of organic food and farming. To reinforce this statement, six articles have been published just this year on the nutritional value of organic foods showing interesting results like:
(1) Organic broccoli maintained higher concentrations of bioactive compounds (ascorbic acid and phenolics) and antioxidant potential during storage than conventional broccoli, with higher potential health beneficial effects (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22936597),
(2) Organic cropping systems result in spinach with lower levels of nitrates and higher levels of flavonoids and ascorbic acid (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22393895),
(3) Organic growing increased the level of antioxidant compounds such as carotenoids, phenolic compounds and vitamin C in sweet bell pepper (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22368104),
(4) The organic growing system affects tomato quality parameters such as nutritional value and phenolic compound content (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22351383),
(5) The concentrations of several nutritionally desirable compounds in milk (β-lactoglobulin, omega-3 fatty acids, omega-3/omega-6 ratio, conjugated linoleic acid and/or carotenoids…) decreased with increasing feeding intensity (organic outdoor ≥ conventional outdoor ≥ conventional indoors) (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22737968; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22430502)
Evaluating the health benefits of eating organic foods is a relatively new research focus (less than 10 years of investigation). The number of publications is increasing significantly each year and we can expect more sophisticated research projects and as a result, more and more interesting results will be available to demonstrate the benefit of eating organic foods.
Moreover, the long term health impact of eating organic foods is not currently appropriately addressed. The duration of the human studies ranged from two days to two years. Most of the health effects will take a lot longer than that to show up.
According to the Stanford University article, this kind of clinical investigations won’t be possible because it is too expensive. Past (the SUVIMAX 1 study in France) and current experiences (the SUVIMAX 2 and Nutrinet studies in France, the Raine study in Australia and the Ontario Birth Study here in Toronto, Canada) to name some of them show that this is possible to investigate long-term effects if there is the political will to go in this direction.
Finally, the interface between food, nutrition and health is a complex issue. It depends from where you come from, your education and how you value the importance of good foods and/or health as well as the tradition and culture around food and culinary practices.
For CKi, nutritious food is more than the number of calories or the quantity of macro- (protein, carbohydrate…) and/or micronutrients (minerals and vitamins), it also relates to its social component (eating together, discussing and sharing food), the taste of food, the use of our five senses and finally, the impact that colorful and tasty foods can have on our brain and ultimately on our overall well-being.
Nutrition is a complex phenomenon, like an interactive game where pleasure can play a significant role. Unfortunately, we have lost this dimension in our “super speed” world.
A few years ago, I switched to organic and/or local food because I wanted to reconnect with my roots (French culture around food). The result has been more than positive. I have rediscovered the taste of foods: seasonal fruits and vegetables where I am sure to find the best nutritional value as well as locally produced meat, eggs, cheese and bread. As a result, I am eating less meat and refined carbohydrates but more grains, fruits and vegetables; I also cut completely junk foods. When I am cooking real foods and I am eating good cuisine, I have a lot of pleasure and I feel full not only in my stomach but also in my mind – a great sensation of satiety. I also know that I contribute socially to the sustainability of the global food security. This is also why it is important to eat organic and/or local foods!
Over time, we can expect that unbiased analysis coupled with modern-day science is likely to show with increasing clarity that growing and consuming organic food, especially in conjunction with healthy diets rich in fresh, whole foods and seasonal fruits and vegetables is one of the best health-promotion investments we can make today as individuals, families, and a society.
* In statistics, a meta-analysis refers to methods focused on contrasting and combining results from different studies, in the hope of identifying patterns among study results, sources of disagreement among those results, or other interesting relationships that may come to light in the context of multiple studies.