"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, September 7, 2012

Organic, Shmorganic - Debunking The 'Health Benefits' Myth Of Organic Foods

A recently published and now famous Stanford Study has concluded that organic fruits and vegetables are no more nutritious than commercially-produced ones; nor do organic meats confer any added nutritional benefits. This, as organic food converts are quick to say, is not the point.  Organic foods are not bought because of their nutritional value, but for their purity, and the absence of hormones, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetic modification. 
“There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health,” said Dena Bravata, MD, MS, the senior author of a paper comparing the nutrition of organic and non-organic foods, published in the Sept. 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.
A team led by Bravata, a senior affiliate with Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, and Crystal Smith-Spangler,MD, MS, an instructor in the school’s Division of General Medical Disciplines and a physician-investigator at VA Palo Alto Health Care System, did the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date of existing studies comparing organic and conventional foods. They did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives.... (Stanford Medical News)
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Perhaps, but what are the proven outcomes of such organic foods?  Are hormone- and pesticide-free foods positively correlated to improved health?  Currently the only well-studied link between animal feed and human infection has been related to drug-resistant bacteria that some say are incubated in poultry and pass into the human population.  Antibiotic-laced chicken, say organic food advocates, causes human disease.  However, after six decades of heavy agricultural use of antibiotics, opponents of antibiotics must still make arguments about theoretical risks, since actual examples are hard to come by.
Dr. Charles Hofacre, professor at the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety and an officer of the American Association of Avian Pathologists, points out that while the resistance factors in chicken- and human-associated bacteria resemble each other, no study has yet proven that a transfer occurs. Antibiotic resistance is so common, Hofacre said, that "it isn't surprising that genes carried by human E. coli are going to be similar to resistance genes in chicken E. coli -- or pig E. coli, or salamander E. coli."
Dr. Randall Singer of the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine points out that some recent research suggests that antibiotic resistance genes in E. coli may actually originate from humans, spreading through sewage into ground and surface waters, and from there into the environment and livestock. "To say these genes exist in a person because of an antibiotic that was given to a chicken is too narrow an interpretation." (Maryn McKenna, The Atlantic, 7.11.12)
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has published many studies concerning drug-resistant E.coli and notes that there are hundreds of antibiotics given for thousands of diseases in tens of thousands of cases, making it impossible to pinpoint causal relationships such as the one posited by organic enthusiasts.

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There have been no conclusive studies to date about the health effects of genetically-modified or irradiated food on human health, and yet the clarion call to banning them continues.  The reason is not only health, say the anti-GM advocates, it is that GM will eliminate ‘natural’ plants and in some near-future biological Armageddon when all the GM foods are wiped out, we will be left with nothing.

What is missing in all this is risk analysis.  What is the risk of such an apocalyptic event? What are the benefits of GM foods?  Staples like rice and wheat which can achieve geometric leaps in productivity and shortened growing time are of inestimable benefit to a rapidly growing world. 
Roger Cohen, in an opinion piece in the New York Times (The Organic Fable, 9.7.12) notes:
To feed a planet of 9 billion people, we are going to need high yields not low yields; we are going to need genetically modified crops; we are going to need pesticides and fertilizers and other elements of the industrialized food processes that have led mankind to be better fed and live longer than at any time in history.
Organophiles should be delighted about GM foods because of the reduction in or elimination of pesticides and fertilizers; but they are not, ruled as they are more by idealistic notions of environmental purity than by reality.
Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.
These poor are ultimately benefitting from commercial farming which produces food at low prices because of mechanization, finely-tuned logistics and management, disease-free environments (increasing yields), and genetic modification.  This commercial trend will continue.  The organic craze is an elitist fad which will never extend beyond the shelves of high-end supermarkets and and funky tables of farmers’ Sunday stalls.  The locavore movement which links locally-produced and organic food is the worst of the idealists’ delusions:
Pierre Desrochers (In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet) is  particularly bemused by the notion that anyone would try to produce local food "when it makes no economic sense," when we have developed over the course of centuries an international and increasingly efficient system for feeding the world affordable bananas and blueberries and lamb year-round. Locavores – and their kind have popped up throughout history – have traditionally championed local food, he says, for no reason other than that it’s local (Uncle Guido’s Facts, “Do Locavores Really Make Any Sense At All?”)
Roger Cohen concludes:
Organic is a fable of the pampered parts of the planet — romantic and comforting. Now, thanks to Stanford researchers, we know just how replete with myth the “O” fable is.

1 comment:

  1. Are conventional foods at low prices due to anything other than the subsidy they get from the government? I suspect that a huge portion of the cost savings come from subsidy of cash crops.

    You neglected to mention that what the widely circulated Stanford study did find is that organics showed significantly less pesticide residue. Whether you want to avoid it or not is up to you, but that's the main reason most rational people choose organics (I'm aware that it's a lifestyle thing for many). As to research linking antibiotics in the food supply, this is impossible due to the fact that there is no required disclosure of types or amounts fed to animals. You can't study causality if you have no ready way to know how much or what kind have been used.


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