I often get into arguments with supporters of the organic movement. While I share their interest in ensuring the long term health of the soil, the methods they espouse are not always the same as mine. Practices that discourage soil erosion by wind and water are easy. So are proper crop rotations and the use of legumes to increase organic matter and nitrogen levels. However, I strongly believe that the future of agriculture must contain genetically modified crops and the use of chemical fertilizers. One of the areas we most strongly battle is the idea that supporting the use of GMOs is the same as supporting the business practices of Monsanto and the other large multi-nationals.
My attitude is that the requirements of feeding an ever growing population lie in using the best practices that will promote sustainability while providing cheap and nutritious food to as many people as possible.
Most everyone is now aware of the study that was just published that demonstrated there is no discernible difference between the nutrition in organic and non-organic food. The organic industry has responded predictably. First they are denouncing the study. That’s to be expected, and actually it is very reasonable to examine the methodology and conclusions. Although it seems that no one outside of the organic movement has found any serious problems.
The other more interesting claim is the organic supporters who are now claiming that the movement was never about nutrition in the first place.
Did people actually think an organic vegetable has more vitamins than a non-organic vegetable? I didn’t know anyone thought that.
This is interesting because of the contradiction between the two statements. If the study is flawed, claims of nutritional differences are real—but we never claimed there was a difference, so there shouldn’t be. As anyone with a memory longer than 3 days can attest, nutritional claims were often placed ahead of, or on par, with environmental ones.
The other part of the study concerns pesticides and antibiotics. The study found that the actual risk from eating either type of produce was small. This is because while the organic produce had lower pesticide residue, the non-organic rarely exceeded safety levels.
From Steve Novella at Science Based Medicine:
So while there was a difference, this did not result in a significant difference in terms of exceeding safe limits. Further, studies looking at health outcomes did not find any significant difference between consuming organic vs conventional produce. These studies are limited in number and duration, however. Further, there may be a bias in how these studies are performed. Organic farming does use pesticides, but only “natural” pesticides are allowed. There is little to no evidence that these organic pesticides are less harmful for consumers or the environment. It is just assumed that they are based upon the naturalistic fallacy.
Even if we take the most pro-organic assumption – that there are more pesticides on conventional produce and that those pesticides have greater negative health effects than organic pesticides, it must still be recognized that simply washing fruits and vegetables effectively reduces pesticide residue. If minimized exposure to pesticide residue is your goal, thoroughly washing your produce is probably the easiest and cheapest way to achieve that end.
Differences in bacterial contamination were similar. There were no differences seen in E. coli contamination. There was a 33% greater chance of isolated a multi-antibiotic resistance bacteria on conventional produce, but no evidence this translates into a health risk. Again – even if we assume a difference in health risk (something not demonstrated by the data) this can be remedied by thorough washing.
The best conclusion to draw from this study is that if you have the money, or the space to grow your own, organic is perfectly acceptable. If you don’t have the money, simply don’t want to spend the extra, practice good foods hygiene and you’ll get along just fine. If you want to help your neighbours, support sustainable modern agriculture.